For years, photographs taken in the narrow sandstone slot canyons of the American southwest have captivated me. The curving, wave-like shapes, improbably red sandstone walls and magical reflected orange and yellow light all come together to allow a photographer to create pictures that suspend reality. There are countless slot canyons to be found throughout the desert regions of Utah, Arizona and New Mexico, and there are no doubt many more that have yet to be discovered. Most slot canyons are known only to desert explorers, and are usually hard to find, difficult to get to and require rope and climbing skills to be explored. On a trip to Arches National Park a few years back I read a guidebook that detailed how to get to a couple of the better-known slots in central Utah. I quickly realized that good maps, a serious off-road vehicle, supplies for desert survival, climbing equipment and several days of time would be necessary if I wanted to visit them. However, I also knew that one particular slot was at least somewhat accessible to the general public. I knew this because I had seen photos taken by photographers who I knew to be considerably less accomplished backcountry travelers than myself. I knew the name of the slot was Antelope Canyon but I didnâ€™t know its location and failed to locate it on that particular trip.
After that trip I continued to see photos of Antelope Canyon. Each photo is so captivating and improbable I began to wonder if I had what it took to capture a piece of the magic or if special techniques and perfect timing on a few rare days a year were required. Earlier this year I was planning to make another trip to the four corner states with my friend, Greg, and decided that I would do some advance research to find out more about Antelope Canyon.
Searches into my photo travel books and on the Internet revealed Antelope Canyon to be even more accessible and well known than I had thought. Located just a few miles east of Page, Arizona, it is accessed from a large parking area right off of Highway 98. It also turns out that, while not as well known in the Northwest as the national parks are, Antelope Canyon is enough of a destination that it ends up on the itinerary of many visitors along with the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley and Zion. The saturation of photos of the canyon that have been published in recent years has made it trendy enough to even attract the attention of celebrities and movie productions. Most comments from other photographers on the Web indicated that trying to shoot there these days should be avoided at all cost. The general attitude is that Antelope Canyon has become so crowded that photographing it requires monk like patience and determination to deal with hundreds of people crammed into a ten foot wide crack all jostling, pushing and walking in front of your camera.
Antelope canyon has an upper and a lower section, each accessed from opposite sides of the highway. The upper canyon is about three miles from the road and is easily entered on foot by walking in through its outlet in the cliff wall. At one time you could reach the upper canyon on your own by driving your off road vehicle or hiking in from the road, but now the Navajo Nation, which the canyon is part of, strictly limits visitors to taking one and a half hour guided tours on large trucks that leave from the parking area or from tour companies in Page. By the time you pay for parking and the tour the tab comes to about $21. The lower canyon, which was closed due to flooding during my visit, is closer to the road, but apparently requires some scrambling and rope work to access. Slot canyons are formed by wind and water eroding narrow channels into soft sedimentary rock. In some places slots are only a few feet wide and can be hundreds of feet deep. The wavelike shapes of their walls appear to flow like the water that created them.
Our initial instinct was to take the advice I had read online and blow right past Antelope without a second thought, but then we ended up staying in the Page area with an extra day in the schedule. In the end, our trepidation of being trapped in a tight crowded space, hurried along by disgruntled Navajo guides was overridden by the lure of taking magical photos. We paid the money and climbed in the back of an old Chevy 4x4 with oversized tires with about ten or twelve other folks. In a line of three or four trucks we drove up a dry riverbed into the desert. Arriving ten minutes later at the canyon entrance we took deep breaths and were prepared to leave our cameras in our packs when we saw that there were already eight or ten other tour trucks parked there.
The young Navajo woman who was our guide, and who turned out to be very good humored, knowledgeable and photographer friendly, said that for the first fifteen minutes she would lead us through the quarter mile length of the canyon pointing out interesting features and then turn us loose for 45 minutes to explore and photograph. She also informed us that it was possible to pay an additional $10 to stay for another hour and return on a different truck.
Entering the canyon I was immediately transported back to all the photos I had ever seen. Walking along staring up 120 feet into the narrow reaches of the canyon walls I was completely absorbed. It was just as amazing in real life as in photos. Dutifully I followed along with the group even though I was tempted to ditch them for fear of wasting precious shooting time.
The next 45 minutes flashed by as I rapidly moved from one location to another, setting up my tripod, composing and capturing shot after shot. A couple of other groups passed by from time to time, but I think most people hiked up to the end of the canyon and back and then waited outside for the trucks to leave. Rarely did I have a problem with people getting in my shot or bumping my tripod. Most of the shots are composed up high on the canyon walls and over the tops of peopleâ€™s heads. More than once I was completely by myself for up to ten minutes at a time. When the hour was up we gladly paid the additional $10 so we could stay for another hour. During the second hour a group would come through from time to time, but in between would be long periods in which the only other people I encountered were fellow photographers crouching in the shadows.
The most popular and busy time to photograph Antelope Canyon is during June, around the solstice, when the sun passes most directly overhead. Near midday, shafts of direct light penetrate all the way down to the floor of the canyon. Many of the photos you see feature these bright shafts piercing the dim light, turning whatever they strike bright white. We were there in early October and I liked that I wasnâ€™t worried about staking out a spot in order to be ready when a shaft of light appeared. Instead it was nice to be free to explore the entire canyon and focus on more subtle compositions and lighting. The most important tip for getting good photos in the canyon is to be there on a clear, sunny day an hour or two before or after noon when sunlight is striking the upper walls at an angle that allows it to reflect back and forth deep into the canyon. I found that right at noon direct light penetrated far enough in that it was hard to keep it from causing lens flare or blowing out sections of the canyon walls. Another good tip is to try to set up your camera in the most deeply shadowed areas to prevent flare-causing light from entering the lens. I shot on a tripod with a small aperture (f/18 or more) and long shutter speeds at an ISO of 100. My exposures were several seconds long, so I also shot with a cable release and used the mirror lock up function to prevent vibrations. I exposed my shots so that the brightest highlight areas were on the edge of overexposure making them appear to glow yellow/white-hot. In some areas the angle of the rock would actually reflect some of the blue sky itself, creating neon blue and purple tones. If I could do it again I would use my long lens more to zoom in on some of the brighter areas of rock near the top of the canyon.
In what seemed like moments the second hour was up and we emerged, squinting, into the bright desert sun. My head buzzed with adrenaline after focusing so hard to interpret the constantly changing shapes and light during the previous two hours. I donâ€™t know if we were lucky to get the shots we did or if it just felt that way after having such low expectations, but in the end we were very glad that we decided to go for it. Antelope Canyon is too well known to offer the quiet kind of solitary experience that it once did, but it is still a mind bending natural formation that brings together all the elements of color, shape, texture and light needed for one of a kind photos. Despite the crowds I would recommend it to photographers, just as long as you donâ€™t mind taking the same one of a kind photos as everyone else.