The first challenge is finding the tour company you want to use and selecting a specific tour. You have to visit the canyons through a tour guide. I used Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours (web page www.navajoantelopecanyon.com), partially as they responded to emails and I was confident I actually had a booking, but also they offer a number of tours, and whilst I love my family dearly, they don’t always mix well with photography. So I booked Tour 2, Upper Antelope and Rattlesnake starting at 9:30 and my family on Tour 10 – just Antelope Canyon starting at 10:15. This meant I managed to do as much photography as possibly whilst minimising the time for the family to wait around for me. Wal Mart is easy to find in the local town of Page to keep them happy.
It’s best to be in Antelope canyon around midday on a bright sunny day if light shafts are your goal.
I recommend choosing a photographic tour, this allows you to take your tripod and the tour groups are very well organised and move the masses out of the way to enable you to get the classic shots. Your photographs will be severely limited if you don’t go this route, a tripod for most will be essential with exposure times down to a few seconds. The photographic tour of Rattlesnake and Upper Antelope cost $138 in 2015, not cheap but we had a good guide (Roman – sorry if misspelt) and 3 photographers, for a total 3.5hrs, which I which was good value.
What equipment to take is a key question, you want to travel light and you want to avoid changing lenses in the canyon. In the end I took the Canon 5D mk2 with 24-105mm lens and the Fujifilm X-Pro with 18mm lens as a back-up. I didn’t use the Fuji and felt the Canon combo was ideal. Other accessories included a tripod and remote release.
Another advantage of Antelope Canyon Tours is they are located outside of Page, pretty close to the canyons, so the day started with a quick drive to the canyons starting with Rattlesnake canyon. Antelope Canyon Tours are the only operator providing tours of this canyon, so one big advantage is we had the canyon to ourselves, this is great opportunity to explore the canyon and get familiar with typical settings needed on the camera, I found F11 was a good starting point with provided good depth of field throughout the picture. Roman was excellent at pointing out common view points whilst allowing us to explore ourselves and still keeping the pace moving to ensure we kept to our schedule.
Rattlesnake canyon is great for abstract shots and patterns, the shot below was shot at 28mm F11 1/10s, ISO 100.
Rattlesnake Canyon is quite narrow and whilst I had taken a camera rucksack into the canyon, it limited movement somewhat and I recommend you leave it behind, especially at Upper Antelope canyon where it will get in the way of other people too.
I typically kept ISO at 100 but you could increase this a little as some noise on the sandstone is not as noticeable as noise on a clear blue sky, but it’s best to keep it down to retain details. I also bracketed exposures quite a bit, which means that any burnt out parts might be available still, and provides the option to do HDR, but I did try a few shots as HDR and didn’t feel it added anything.
After Rattlesnake it was a quick drive to Upper Antelope canyon, and the big difference is the number of people. In the height of summer the canyon is a solid flow of tourists, so there is little chance of getting full height floor to sky shots until a bit later when a number of the tour guides work together to block the masses from entering certain chambers whilst photographers line up like a firing squad to take the classic shots. Also due to the masses dump any camera bags and leave them in the truck, travel light with camera on tripod. I actually took my Fuji X-Pro1 in but it was in the way, so when I bumped into my wife I generously gave it to her to use.
First part of the visit to Antelope Canyon consisted of a tour through the slot canyon with our guide pointing out the common views. I recommend keeping close to the guide as they know the sights and although it’s great to explore the angles yourself it would be easy to miss some great pictures, such as the Monument valley view below. You need to work fast to keep the pace up, bracketing can slow this down, but if you don’t bracket always check the back of the camera after to check for blown out areas and check exposure is good. Always shoot in RAW, it provides greater exposure range and allows you to change white balance later. As it’s crowded it’s necessary to work fast and grab the shots between people moving into the scene.
Monument Valley View - 24mm, F11, 2.5s, ISO 100
After reaching the end of the canyon it was approaching midday and time for the photographic tour groups to gather together in the middle in the hope for the light shaft shots. The tour guides we great at organising us, getting the photographers to line up in tow lines, one on the ground and one standing, whilst they posted guides up and downstream to stop unwanted intruders. The light beams are created by throwing sand into the air, I bumped the ISO up a little to capture some texture in the light beams. One tip worth noting is to set the camera to manual for this part, the difference in exposure between the sand being thrown and no sand easily fools the camera. Set exposure below the sand is thrown and underexposure a little as the whole chamber will illuminate when the sand is thrown. Bracketing can help recover some burnt out parts, but stay on the underexposed side otherwise by the time your camera has finished 3 exposures (on the 5d Mk2) you might have missed the sand being thrown a couple of times.
As well as taking pictures of the light beams we had the chance to capture sand falling from a rock shelf. Make sure your camera is level and snap away, this was probably the only shot I would have liked to take wider than 24mm.
Sand Falls - 24mm, F10, 2.5s, ISO 100
After my trip to the slot canyons my top tips are:
- Do it – it’s an amazing experience
- Book a photo tour, this way you’ll get some great shots
- Try and time the tour to coincide with midday in the canyon for the rays of sunlight
- Keep with the guide and listen to what they say, but also look around and find unusual angles for yourself.
- Take a tripod
- Keep equipment to a minimum - single body and lens (nearly all my favourite shots were taken 24-28mm – longer helps zoom in for great abstracts), but a 17-40mm would have been fine for most shots. It’s best not to change lenses in the canyon.
- Use manual exposure where needed
My prints are available from here and here
Another top tip is that horseshoe bend is just a short 10 minute trip from Antelope Canyon, this is a breath taking view on a 1000ft drop and stunning river meander.