Slip Into Antelope Canyon with Karin Smith

Photographing the Upper and Lower Antelope Slot Canyons in Page, Arizona

There are numerous locations in western United State that are on many photographer’s bucket list and many of them are located within famous national parks (Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Yellowstone, etc.).  However, there are also several locations that are far off the beaten path.  Situated just below the Arizona/Utah state borders, the Upper and Lower Antelope Slot Canyons have become many a photographer’s nirvana.

Just a 2 hour drive north from Grand Canyon National Park, Antelope Canyon is located near Page, Arizona on North American Indian reservation land and is controlled by the Navajo Nation.  As folklore goes, a young Navajo Indian shepard seeking shelter from the summer heat discovered the first canyon. Upon ducking inside an opening on the side of the plateau, he discovered a slot of delicately carved sandstone walls that glowed of various colors and tones.

Location of Page, AZ

Location of Page, AZ  USA

The now famous carved walls were created as a result of years of heavy rains collecting one one side of the plateau and repeatedly pushing against it eventually creating a 120 ft. vertical crevice.  Due to the narrow width of the canyon, it can fill up with water very quickly creating a high risk of drowning during the rainy seasons.  The Navajo Nation takes extreme precautions to restrict tours during rainstorms to avoid incidents, so be aware that tours are cancelled at a moment’s notice even if there is only the slightest bit of rain in the area.

There are two sections to Antelope Canyon.  The more popular upper location has an easy walk-in entry and is 660 ft. in length.  The lower section is longer at about 1,335 feet (407 m), but more difficult to enter.  The lower canyon entrance requires a visitor to squeeze through a narrow crevice (restricts large backpacks) and then walk down several staircases.  Both locations require a permit ($6 USD), a fee (starting at $25) and to be accompanied by a guide.  Tours specifically for photographers are available from several local companies (prices starting at $50).

The first time I visited Antelope Canyon, I went to the parking lot just outside of the canyon, paid my fees and was given a tour time.  This tour moved quickly through the canyon with no time to set up for photos.  The second time I visited I paid more to one of the local tour companies and was able to get better photos.  The guide on this trip pointed out the best light locations and participated more with the group.  I was able to bring a tripod and had more time to walk through.

What is it like to photograph this location?

The experience begins with a very bumpy 20-minute ride in a pick-up truck whose bed has been modified with benches.  The drive goes through high piles of sand so it is slow going.  Eventually you will arrive just in front of the plateau and see a thin slot cut into the sandstone wall.

Elevated pickup trucks bring you to the entrance of Upper Antelope Canyon

Elevated pickup trucks bring you to the entrance of Upper Antelope Canyon

Entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon

Entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon

Your guide will gather your group once you disembark.  Some history of the area is provided and the rules of the canyon are detailed.  Tours move very fast as there are a limited number of groups that can visit each day.  As noted, the canyon gets extremely dark (and very narrow!) in several sections which slows the flow of visitors moving from the front to the back of the canyon. But the allure of these locations is definitely the play between light and shadow; in fact, it’s the epitome of it!

Creating images inside of these slot canyons can be challenging.  With very little light let in through the slot, and even when there are long beams of light, the variation between light and dark areas is often very severe.  This can also be complicated by the time of day.  Pay close attention when composing your image to see if there are any light hotspots causing overexposure in your image.  One solution I found was to strategically place the overexposed spot at the corners of the frame so in post processing it could easily be cropped or cloned out.

Antelope Canyon, AZ

Dark to Light

The next challenge was avoiding including the canyon opening in the top of your composition, as it is difficult to recover the abundance of light in comparison to the rest of your image.  But again, break the rules and find sections of the slot where you may be able to create a high dynamic range (HDR) image (3 to 5 images of varying exposure settings blended together later in a software application like Photoshop or Lightroom) as I did in the photo below.

Looking up from inside the canyon; limited light enters the canyon creating dramatic plays of light and shadow

Looking up from inside the canyon; limited light enters the canyon creating dramatic plays of light and shadow

What equipment should I use?

What I learned from my first visit to the slot canyon was I needed a very fast lens (f/2.8 or even faster).  It didn’t matter as much about the field of view as you could adapt to using even a telephoto as long as it was a fast lens.  I was using an Olympus OMD-EM1 and the Olympus 12-40 mm / f2.8 (equivalent to a 24-80 in 35mm format) to provide both a wide angle and mid-range telephoto.  You will also need to use a higher ISO to compensate for the darkness.  Understand how high you can set your camera without introducing much noise before you start the tour.  

Twists and turns of the canyon walls

Twists and turns of the canyon walls

Some tours charge extra for bringing a tripod and you might not have much time or energy to set one up while inside.  Tours that are specifically for photographers do move slower and allow for tripod setup, but after two visits, I found in order to work fast I handheld the camera.  I think a monopod would have been a good compromise, especially the models that have feet on the bottom for additional support.

Do not change your lens while inside the slot canyon! or open any compartment on your camera if you can avoid it – this means it is critical to have fully charged batteries/fresh image cards before entering.  Sandstone is constantly falling while inside the canyon and you will come out covered in particle dust.  If you have a breathing condition, also be aware that you will inhale sandstone during the visit.

A face in the dust - a guide tosses the sandstone into the air to create highlighted shapes inside the canyon

A face in the dust – a guide tosses the sandstone into the air to create highlighted shapes inside the canyon

When to Visit

I would recommend visiting the slot canyons during the winter and early spring months (December to April). The temperatures are cooler and locations are less populated.  Summer brings crowds and heat. Crowds also extrapolates into higher costs for entrance fees. Since this location is not US government controlled, the prices are subject to change. Check costs and availability before arriving for your trip during the more popular times of the year.

Additional Tips

  • Check your settings to increase your ISO before starting your tour.
  • I would recommend bringing a plastic rain sleeve or camera cover to protect your camera body & lens even if it is weather-resistant.
  • It is critical once you have finished your visit to clean off your gear.  I would recommend purchasing a can of compressed air from the local retail store to help in removing dust from your equipment.
  • One final recommendation is to wear old shoes/clothes (white sneakers will become orange) because as I noted earlier, you too will get covered with sandstone (definitely a theme here) as guides and visitors regularly disturb it.
Not necessarily camera-friendly, but image-worthy!

Not necessarily the most camera-friendly location, but definitely image-worthy!

Antelope Canyon is a one of a kind natural wonder and a great experience worth the effort to get there.  You will be amazed at nature’s ability to create beauty in the least likely of locations.

Antelope Canyon

A Beam of Light Shines Through

About the Author

Karin SmithKarin Smith is a travel photographer, writer and artist from Naples, Florida.  At the age of four, she took her first image with a Kodak Brownie box camera at the World’s Fair in Queens, NY.  It was a picture of her parents and she promptly cut off their feet at the ankles.  After a 32-year career in information technology, Karin has begun her second career focusing on her creative interests.  She considers herself a travel “photothropologist” combining all styles of photography (street, landscape, close-up, portraiture) to record the “story” of any given place.  It also helps to have a great curiosity of what lies beyond the front door.  Find more of her travel stores at  karintravels.wordpress.com or on Instagram at @karin_travels.

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