Recently I paid my first visit to Upper Antelope Canyon in Page Arizona. I had wanted to visit here for several years before I got around to finally taking the plunge. It is a long drive from Albuquerque (about 7 hours) so the trip involved an overnight stay. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish and set out determined not to blow the opportunity. Believe me, I have been known to blow photographic opportunities before, mostly due to being unprepared.
I had studied many photographs of Antelope Canyon, and read way too many “How to Photograph….” articles. Each one of course expressing a completely different opinion and my “How To…” will be no different.
I don’t presume to know everything there is to know about photographing Antelope Canyon, in fact, I am not really sure I know much of anything at all, but in the event it seems I did good. I was well prepared for the experience and was very pleased with the results.
There are many horror stories about photography in Upper Antelope Canyon; The crowds, the dust, the high price, the difficulty, the short time period, all of which are true. It is an extremely challenging location and can be completely intimidating if you don’t approach it right. My Navajo guide told me that she felt many people on the Photography tours were generally unprepared for the experience, and seemed not know what they wanted to accomplish.
The Smell of the Crowd
The first thing you need to be prepared for are the crowds. Late May to early August is the busy time for the canyon. My trip was at the end of August and the crowds were still fairly large but apparently nothing compared with June or July, which are supposed to be the worst. The canyon is really not that large, being about 600 feet long, 20 feet or so at its widest, maybe 4 -5 feet at its narrowest and is generally crammed with 200 or more people. The crowds are unavoidable, so just take them in stride and do your thing.
I have heard some condemnation of the Navajo for allowing this situation to exist and profiting from it, but I cannot see it as their issue. The canyon used to be open to the public. People would stay the night and start fires in the canyon, which would stain the walls. They would leave trash, and beer bottles, and carve their names into the sandstone. Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation were discussing closing the canyon to the public when in 1997 eleven tourists were killed by a flash flood in Lower Antelope Canyon, which was caused by a rain storm some 10 – 15 miles away. Well, that ended the discussion and all of the canyons have been closed since that time, unless accompanied by a guide. The Navajo take great pains to watch the weather and they will close down the canyon if necessary. It seems that requiring guides to get into the canyon has created a bottleneck making the crowds worse, but it is a necessary and practical evil.
Swarms of tourists from all over the world clamor to get into the canyon (the scene in front of the sign-up desk reminded me of the Wall Street trading floor). The Navajo do a wonderful job of trying to accommodate everyone who shows up, but there are thousands of people wanting to visit.
If your intent is serious photography reserve a spot on one of the Photography Tours. Tripods are not allowed on the regular tours. The photo tours fill up fast, and I booked my reservation about two months prior to my visit. The fee for my photo tour was $80.00, but it has since risen to $120.00 for the two-hour tour.
The photo tours are all in the 10:00 AM to 3:00 PM range. This is the time of day when sunbeams shine through the slot at the top of the canyon during the May – August time frame.
I chose Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours. I found them to be quite professional and accommodating and I attribute my success in large part to the expertise of my guide. I really had no basis to inform this choice other than I found their website to be more accommodating. There aren’t that many tour companies anyway, and I suspect they are all very similar.
On the day of my tour, I was signed in nervously waiting for my tour to start along with about a hundred other people. We were all under this 20′ x 30′ shade structure (the only shade around for miles) waiting for the tours to begin. When the director of the tour group called for the 11:00 regular guided tour the entire place emptied out except for me. Strange, I wondered, where are all of the other photographers? Well, it turns out that for whatever reason I was the only person out of 15 registered for the photographer’s guided tour who showed up. “Is the tour cancelled,” I asked the director? “Oh no”, she said, “you just lucked out and got your own private guide.”
Although I had to share the canyon with hundreds of people (there must have been 200 – 300) I now had my own personal Navajo guide, and she was amazing. She directed the crowds away from me, emptied rooms out for short periods of time, and shielded me (sometimes literally standing in front of my tripod with her arms outstretched) from the tremendous commotion in the canyon. All the while she was shouting at and maneuvering the crowds to accommodate me, and somehow making them love her for it. She was quite young but I got the impression she had been doing this for some time, and she seemed to know exactly what was necessary in order to give me the opportunities I needed. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the light in the canyon was as good as it gets. I was so intent on the task at hand I wasn’t even aware of the crowd after a while. All I needed to do was focus on my photography and my procedures. Follow your procedures. They will save you every time.
I decided early on to only bring my two favorite lenses:
My SMC Pentax-DA 14mm F2.8, and my Pentax HD DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited, and of course my trusty Pentax K-3.
All I carried into the canyon was my tripod and my small field bag containing a cable release, extra lens, blower brush, cleaning cloths and extra batteries. The weather was cool so I did not worry about dragging water along, although I would think twice about this if the weather were hot. The canyon is cool but extremely dry and dusty.
I shoot exclusively manual no matter the situation, but shooting manual in the canyon is essential. If you are not familiar with shooting your camera in manual mode, Learn! You will not be disappointed. The lighting range in the canyon is extreme and your camera will probably not make proper automatic decisions.
I decided that I would lock down two of my three shooting parameters at the outset, ISO and F-Stop. I started with my ISO at 100. I was not sure that this would suffice, but I wanted the lowest ISO I could get away with so I would start there and see how far I got. It turns out that this setting got me through the entire shoot, although it did lengthen my exposure times.
Both of my lenses have very nice sweet spots at F10 so I set this in advance. I only had to modify this to F5.0 for one very dark, up close shot. Discover the sweet spots of your chosen lenses before you go. You will be glad you did.
The only parameter I really wanted to have to change was the shutter speed. I was on a tripod using my shutter release cable and was not concerned about the shutter speed except in so far as to inform me and my guide how long we had to protect my setup from the crowd. The photograph below was a 30 second exposure taken in a very narrow corridor with the crowds streaming by constantly.
The lighting in the canyon is very low for the most part except at the entrances and towards the top. Individual scenes can cover a range of light from the blackest of blacks to the most blinding white whites. No amount of exposure compensation will accommodate the whites near the top of the canyon. They are truly white, blinding white. In general, I tried to judge the range of light and shadow (think Zone System) and expose accordingly. I metered on the mid-range shadows, and shot anywhere from -1.0 EV to -2.0EV depending on my perception of the light range. Use your histogram to verify your exposure and try to center it as best you can. If you are not blowing things out to the left or right you can easily deal with the image in post-processing.
Auto or Manual Focus
There are many opinions regarding auto vs. manual focusing. Most seem to be hard over one way or the other. I found the light in the canyon to be sufficient for auto-focus in every instance but one. In that instance, my guide (who seemed intimately familiar with every possible contingency) picked up on my distress and casually produced a small pocket flashlight which she shined on the point of interest allowing my auto-focus to work. After the initial focus, I turned the focus switch to manual in order to take several shots from this location without having to re-focus.
Use the focus method you are most comfortable with, and take along a small flashlight just in case. I did not and would have lost the photograph above if it were not for my guide. A flashlight will save the day in these very dark areas whether using manual or auto focus.
It is fairly hard to judge distance accurately in the canyon due to the variations in light and the constantly undulating walls. There is a rule of thumb for landscape photography that I found most helpful in this situation. I used single-point auto-focus and focused a tad further than one-third of the way into the frame, not regarding distance at all. This seemed to work out quite nicely. I got a surprisingly deep depth of field, which pleased me no end.
Shoot the lowest ISO you can and be prepared for some fairly long exposures. You are on a tripod so if you can protect your set up from the commotion you should be fine. Make sure your tripod is solidly sunk into the sand. Extend the rubber feet instead of the points and wiggle the tripod a bit. This helps compact the sand making it more solid. My exposure times ranged from 1/8 of a second to 30 seconds, and I had no issues whatsoever. Everything came out great.
The Mirror-Up function is a wonderful feature and should be used whenever possible and appropriate. It will remove the tiniest bit of movement from the exposure adding just a hair more sharpness to the image. I am obsessed with sharpness and agonize constantly over not quite acceptable levels of sharpness in my images. In this case, I think it paid off. I was quite pleased with the sharpness I obtained, and I am sure the mirror-up function contributed to this.
I simply waited until I got to the far end of the canyon near the exit to change from my 35mm to my 14mm. I decided in advance to shoot one lens going one way and the other coming back. It is very dusty in the canyon and I did not want to attempt changing lenses inside. Some photographers recommend that you shoot only one lens or a zoom lens to avoid having to switch, and either will do of course, but I did not find changing lenses an issue.
There is much hoo-haw surrounding the famous Antelope Canyon sunbeams. My impression upon seeing my first canyon sunbeam was how wonderfully ethereal and fragile they seem. Quite beautiful actually. However, the go-to thing is to throw sand up in the air to enhance and brighten the sunbeams. The canyon is naturally dusty and the shuffling crowds don’t help matters. Throwing sand like this generates a tremendous amount of additional dust in the air making the sunbeams terribly garish and obvious. The extra dust spoils photo opportunities for precious minutes at a time (remember you only have two hours), and is not so great for your camera either. I found this practice to be completely unacceptable and I asked my guide to please not do it on my account. You will have decide whether or not this suits you. I did not like it one bit.
I found out after the fact, and much to my extreme disappointment that you cannot sell your Antelope Canyon photos (or any photos taken in the Navajo Nation) with having first obtained a commercial photography permit from the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department. Actually, you can obtain a permit after the fact, but it is four times as much as the before-the-fact-permit. I went ahead and sucked it up and obtained one recently but you can save yourself the heartache if you just apply in advance of your visit. It takes 2 – 3 weeks to process the permit and you can apply by contacting the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation. You must apply for a specific date, time and location so plan accordingly.
Special Use Permits (non-refundable) – for photography/filming (Per Location)
Processing Fee/application for 1-3 people $50.00
Processing Fee/application for more than 3 people $100
Processing Fee/application (After the Fact) $200
Tip Your Guide
I was unaware that it is customary to tip your guide. I did not and I hope she didn’t resent me for it. She didn’t seem to care, but if anyone deserved a big tip it was her.
Check out my Antelope Canyon gallery