Getting the shaft at Antelope Canyon

Gary Hart Photography: Heavenly Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon

Heavenly Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon
Canon EOS-1Ds Mark III
30 mm
4 seconds
F/16
ISO 200

How to photograph Antelope Canyon

Not long ago I wandered into a Peter Lik gallery and did a double-take at a floor-to-ceiling print of my” Upper Antelope Canyon image. You’ve probably seen a million versions of the shot:

Peter Lik's Antelope Canyon image

Peter Lik’s Antelope Canyon image

I have no idea whether mine came before or after Lik’s, but it’s safe to say that there were many before both of us, and many since (the day I took mine, there were at least a hundred other photographers fighting for the same shot). I do, however, get a kick out of comparing the two. While Lik and I clearly made different processing choices, his has a lot more footprints (I guess Lik wasn’t the first one to witness this phenomenon), and mine’s a somewhat tighter crop, there’s nothing inherently creative about either. Despite the scene’s undeniable beauty, the ubiquity of this composition dilutes its significance. Nevertheless, one look makes it clear why Upper Antelope Canyon has become a mecca for landscape photographers.

Two canyons

Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons, just outside Page, Arizona, are the most visited of many narrow “slot” canyons carved into hard American Southwest sandstone by years of drought/downpour cycles.. Lower Antelope Canyon is narrower, steeper, and less crowded than its upper cousin. While it lacks the drama of Upper Antelope’s shafting sunlight beams, I think its quieter environment is more conducive to creative photography. Upper Antelope Canyon is known for the narrow shafts of sunlight that seem to originate from heaven. And with the sunlight beams come people, hundreds and hundreds of people each day—tourists and photographers crammed together into this twisting, narrow 1/8 mile corridor.

Gary Hart Photography, Focused Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Focused Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

I’ve heard it said that the only guaranteed shaft you’ll get at Upper Antelope Canyon is from the Navajos who oversee it, charging exorbitant fees to anyone willing to pay and with no regard for their experience. But I don’t think that’s a fair assessment. First, you can hardly fault the Navajos for profiting on this wonder (have you ever been to Disneyland in July?). And while the experience can be something of a shock to the unprepared, (despite appearances to the contrary) the number of visitors in the canyon at any given time is in fact limited, and the guides do an excellent job of managing the throngs while helping photographers get their shots.

For many photographers, the Upper Antelope Canyon shot is the light shaft in the second room. Like Horsetail Fall in February, Mesa Arch at sunrise, and the salmon snacking grizzly at Katmai, it’s a true bucket-list shot. The fact that the world doesn’t really need any more of this particular image doesn’t seem to be a deterrent. So if it’s your first visit to Upper Antelope Canyon, by all means go for the cliché shot (as Peter Lik and I did), but make it your starting point, not your goal.

The Antelope Canyon circus

The popular Upper Antelope Canyon sunlight shaft image is ubiquitous because each sunny day from mid-March through mid-September (months the sun climbs high enough to reach the canyon floor), hundreds of photographers line up for their opportunity to capture it. And when I say line up, I mean that literally—most days they assemble two-deep, ten or so photographers kneeling in the dust behind their tripods in front of another rank of photographers who stand over their shoulders, like Civil War soldiers executing the volley-fire tactic. These photographers even have commanders, Navajo guides, to bark their “Shoot!” orders. Also like soldiers the photographers keep coming in waves—when one group finishes, they’re herded along so the next can line up.

To the unprepared, Upper Antelope Canyon is an incredibly stressful experience, nothing like the cathedral-like solitude implied by the images (though the footprints are a clue). I’ve seen photographers actually retreat from the canyon because they couldn’t handle the urgent pace, constant jostling, and frantic shouting. But after a half-dozen or so Upper Antelope Canyon experiences, I’m finally starting to feel at ease in this incredibly stressful environment, an environment made even more stressful to photographers by the extreme dynamic range, ubiquitous dust, and a seemingly infinite number of composition decisions.

How do you define success?

Success in Upper Antelope Canyon starts with reasonable expectations going in. My Upper Antelope strategy starts by narrowing my goals: There may be many things on my list, but it’s a huge mistake to think I’ll be able to effectively handle more than one or two on a single visit. On my first visit to Upper Antelope Canyon I had no expectations or plan—I was merely satisfied to escape with my life and a handful of cliché (albeit beautiful) shots. On subsequent visits I settled down enough to seek images that were more uniquely mine.

Regardless of my location, there are a few cornerstone objectives for all of my images. For example, I don’t want any sign of human activity, so at Antelope Canyon I avoid footprints, the obviously staged scenes (like the tumbleweed on the ledge that has been there for as long as I’ve been visiting), and people in my images. Another of my “things” is that I never shoot HDR or otherwise blend multiple images. But these are just me—you, on the other hand, may like the story told by footprints, the serenity of an Antelope Canyon still life, the ability to blend a sliver of blue sky into the top of your image, or the sense of scale people provide. Whatever matters most in your photography, make sure (before entering the canyon) that you know how you’ll accomplish it, because when the crazy starts, you’ll need to triage your choices.

While getting something absolutely unique in such a heavily photographed location is pretty tough, success increases as you slow down—not just physically slow down (you probably won’t have a choice), but mentally as well. It helps me slow down when I identify one general theme to concentrate on, such as one (or more) of the many ephemeral, less known shafts bouncing around near the ceiling; tight shots that feature compelling aspects of a larger scene; wide shots that reveal an entire room; or rock/light shapes and relationships. Of course if something else jumps out at me I’ll give it a shot, but I try to maintain my focus on my narrow goal for the duration of my visit.

And finally, come to terms with the reality that success doesn’t mean getting everything you set out for, and prioritize your objectives accordingly: For example, if not getting a light shaft will mean a month of sleepless nights and kicking the dog when you get home, prepare to enter the canyon at the front of your group and to be aggressive (but please, once you get a few good images, move to the back and let others have their chance). Honestly, the happiest Upper Antelope photographers are those who enter with no life-or-death objectives and are able to simply roll with the conditions, because even the best plans can disintegrate in the mayhem.

Have a plan

Rolling with the conditions in Upper Antelope Canyon doesn’t mean that you shouldn’t be prepared. The world speeds up when sunlight shafts in Upper Antelope; the more you have ready before you start, the more productive you’ll be. So without further ado, here are my suggestions for getting the most out of your experience in Upper Antelope Canyon:

  • The ceiling-to-floor shafts only happen in spring and summer: If your happiness depends on photographing light shafts in Upper Antelope Canyon, you’re setting yourself up for disappointment if you just show up and assume they’ll be there. The lower the sun, the higher on the wall the sunlight terminates, so you’ll only get the sunlight shafts midday, from (roughly) mid-March through mid-September, when the sun is high enough in the sky that it can reach all the way to the floor without first running into a wall. And of course the shafts require direct sunlight, so cloudy days won’t work.
  • It’s not all about the shafts: Believe it or not, some of the best images in Upper Antelope Canyon don’t require light shafts, so don’t let their absence ruin your day.
  • Pay the extra money for the photo tour: A photo tour will put you with like-minded visitors who understand that a flash causes more problems than it solves, it’s not okay to walk in front of someone with a camera or to bump a tripod, and (usually) that they need to get out of the way as soon as they get their shot. And your guide will (should) know the timing of the beams down to the minute and do what he/she can to get you there at the right time. Not only that, photo groups get an extra hour (for a total of two hours) in the canyon. While this extra hour comes after the shafts have left, it also comes when the canyon is much (!) less crowded—this extra hour will be your best time for undisturbed, creative photography.
  • Dress for the canyon, not the weather in Page: It’s cool in the canyon, but not cold—during the day it’s generally 10-20 degrees cooler than the outside temperature. Before getting on the truck that will take you out there, ask the guide what he/she wears in the canyon. I’ve sometimes brought a sweater and waited until I see the earlier groups’ guides leaving the canyon before deciding whether to wear it or leave it on the truck.
  • Invest in a can of compressed air: Stop by the Walmart in Page and pick up a can of compressed air for later. If you’re with a group, one can should be sufficient.
  • Gear up for the ride: The twenty-minute ride to Antelope Canyon is a definite E-ticket. You’ll be crammed so tightly into a van or open-air truck that may exit with the imprint of your neighbor’s belt loops on your hip. Depending on your driver (who will also be your guide), at various points on the journey, first through the streets of Page and later on the soft dust of Antelope Wash, you may feel that your life is in jeopardy as your chariot careens around corners and seems constantly on the verge of tipping.
  • Wear a hat: At the canyon dust will be in the air even if it’s not windy, and if it is windy, dust will spill onto your head—I have learned not to go in the canyon without a hat.
  • Bring a tripod: It’s dark in the canyon, so if you’re a serious photographer, don’t even think about photographing there without a tripod.
  • Pick one lens and stick with it: Antelope Canyon is incredibly dusty—changing lenses in there pretty much guarantees dust in your camera. A zoom lens is best, but whether you go with an ultra-wide or a moderate to long telephoto zoom, there will be plenty of shots to keep any lens busy. A wide lens is best if you want the ceiling-to-floor sunlight shaft shots, but the wider you compose, the harder it will be to keep your frame free of people and the unrecoverable brightness in the rafters. My Upper Antelope lens of choice is usually my 24-105—it’s wide enough to cover an entire room and long enough to frame portions of a scene (with the crowds it’s just too hard to keep people out of the frame with my 17-40). I’ve also been happy shooting Upper Antelope with my 70-200, a great lens for isolating the canyon’s graceful curves and for composing out people.
  • Leave the camera bag at the hotel: The lighter you can travel, the faster you’ll be able to respond, and the easier time you’ll have getting through tight spaces. Also, if you’re wearing a backpack, not only will you be constantly bumped, you’ll be constantly be bumping others and scraping the walls.
  • Cover your camera with a plastic bag when you’re not shooting: A used grocery bag or a garbage bag (not used, please) from your hotel room is totally fine.
  • Wear something with pockets (the larger/looser the better): In cool months a sweater or light jacket is great. In the warmer months, you’ll have to get by with your pants or shirt pockets. In my pockets carry a blower or small can of compressed air to clean dust from my lens and camera. I also stuff my lens cap and the bag covering my camera in a pocket while I shoot.
  • Pre-set your exposure variables: To keep things simple, I usually set my aperture and ISO before entering the canyon and don’t touch them unless absolutely necessary—almost all exposure adjustments are to shutter speed only. Since you’ll probably want lots of depth of field, apertures f11 and smaller are usually best. And because when the shafts are beaming in Upper Antelope speed is essential and long exposures are the rule, I’m usually at 400 ISO (sometimes even 800). At ISO 100 and f16 it’s easy to find scenes that require a 20-second exposure—bumping to 400 gives you time for three 5-second exposures with quick adjustments in between. I spot meter in manual mode, but matrix/evaluative metering in aperture priority is probably easiest for anyone not real comfortable with managing exposure.
  • Monitor your histogram (and turn on blinking highlights):  Get in the habit of checking for exposure problems and adjust if necessary before recomposing (remember, you’re on a tripod—right?). Blown highlights are almost always worse than black shadows. If you have the base of the shaft, where it hits the floor, in your frame, there’s a good chance it will be hopelessly blown—as much as I hate blown highlights, I’ve learned to live with this.
  • Don’t forget your RGB histogram: The standard luminosity histogram is better than nothing, but the color in Antelope Canyon skews drastically to the red channel. What your luminosity histogram doesn’t tell you is a that an apparently properly exposed frame may in fact include a blown red channel. If you’re shooting raw and the overexposure isn’t too extreme you can probably recover the blown channel, but the last thing you want is to realize too late that you lost some of the canyon’s fabulous color.
  • Don’t automatically assume autofocus is making the right choices: Given the canyon’s tight confines, even with a small aperture, unless you’re extremely wide you may find it difficult to achieve front-to-back sharpness. Make sure your focus point falls on or slightly behind the most important part of your composition. Autofocus can do this  if you’re careful, but with all the nooks, crannies, curves, intersections, and front-to-back elements for autofocus to lock onto, you need to monitor the focus point closely. I’m almost always in manual focus mode in Upper Antelope, and think live-view focus is a God-send.
  • The best compositions are often above everyone’s head: You’ll be doing a lot of waiting, but that doesn’t mean you can’t be shooting. Because my Antelope Canyon visits are with Don Smith’s Northern Arizona workshop, I’m pretty much always at the rear (Don’s and my shots are always lowest priority), which means when the shafts are present I usually don’t get to shoot anything that’s not toward the top of the canyon. On the other hand, my favorite Antelope Canyon images have come from looking up.
  • There’s more to Upper Antelope than light shafts: Much like photographing sand dunes, in Antelope Canyon you’re shooting curves, lines, and contrast. The more you can train your eye to see a scene the way your camera will see it (limited dynamic range and constrained view), the more productive your visit will be.
  • Consider visiting Lower Antelope Canyon: Lower Antelope, while similar in many ways, is quite different to photograph. It’s narrower, steeper (requiring steep metal stairs in places), and much less crowded. While you won’t find many (or any) light shafts there, you will find lots of creative opportunities. You’ll also be able to stay longer and move more comfortably at your own pace.
  • Tip your guide: I have no idea where the proceeds of the Antelope Canyon gold mine end up, but it’s safe to say it isn’t with the guides. If you think your guide did a good job, don’t be shy about expressing your appreciation with a $5 or $10 (or more) gratuity.
  • Clean up your gear: Camera, lenses, tripod will be coated with dust when you’re done, so this is where you’ll really appreciate that compressed air you picked up before you left. The sooner and more thoroughly you clean your gear, the less you’ll experience that disconcerting crunching whenever you twist the focus ring or extend a tripod leg.

Examples

Sunlight Shaft, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Sunlight Shaft, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

I got this version of the “classic” shaft while hanging back waiting for everyone in our group to get their classic shot. While waiting I had tons of time to play with compositions (this is a horizontal variation of the image at the top of the frame), manage my exposure, and ensure the correct focus point without feeling rushed.

Because the shafts show best when there’s dust in the air, the canyon guides carry scoops for flinging dust into the light’s path. While working this scene I was able to figure out the sweet spot between exposing too soon after the dust was tossed, when the shaft was too bright (completely blown out), and too late, when the shaft faded past the point of dramatic effect. This insight served me quite well on subsequent shafts when I only had time for one or two frames.

Glow, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Glow, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Here’s another composition I found overhead while waiting behind the group. Again, with lots of idle time, I started wide in the direction of this glow originating around the bend, studying each frame on my LCD and incrementally tightening and balancing my composition. Once I had my composition I was able to scrutinize my results to ensure exposure and focus were right.

Rock Face, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Rock Face, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Like a summer afternoon reclined beneath a cumulus sky, quiet time in Upper Antelope Canyon allows the creative brain cells to connect curves, lines, and relationships into recognizable shapes. Your guide will probably point some of these out to you, but you can find them on your own too. I “discovered” (I’m pretty sure this face is sometimes pointed out by the guides too, but I was alone and found it on my own) this human profile (see it on the right?) in the second hour of our group’s photo tour, when we were on our own to wander in peace. While the canyon is far from empty, it is no longer crowded and the vibration is far more relaxed.

I stayed with this scene for about fifteen minutes, working around others who occasionally strolled through. Not wanting to inconvenience anyone by making them wait, but stubbornly refusing to move on until I knew I had what I wanted, I dropped my ISO to 100 and my f-stop to 16. The resulting 20-second exposure enabled me to usher people through quickly without any sign of them in my frame. A couple of times people lingered slightly, creating a cool ghost effect—this isn’t something I wanted, but it might be fun to try if you like that sort of thing.

Enjoy!

What you get from Antelope Canyon is ultimately up to you and the attitude you bring. Enter with reasonable expectations, slow your mind, look up a lot, and whatever you do, don’t forget to occasionally disconnect from your photographic needs long enough to appreciate the unique beauty of this genuine natural wonder.

An Antelope Canyon Gallery

12 Comments on “Getting the shaft at Antelope Canyon

  1. Loved this blog and you captured the experience at Antelope so well. Yes it is very busy, and yes they push people through but hey, it’s a very small space and a lot of people want to see it. Would people rather the daily numbers be limited and have to wait months to visit the canyon?
    My main fear was that I would not get any good shots but I did and I thought the guides were fantastic. We chose the photo tour (which I booked several months in advance via the net) and after the throng left just a handful of us had time to wander at our leisure. One of the guides leaned against the wall and played her flute and the sound wafting through the canyon was magical.

  2. When I describe my experience of shooting Antelope Canyon, I tell people it’s like trying to get a shot of the freeway during evening rush hour without any cars in it. You definitely have to go there with a good dose of patience. The other piece of advice that I always give to anyone headed that way: take time to hit horshoe bend for sunrise.

  3. Gary
    Great images as always. Thank you for sharing your images and knowledge also. A couple of quick questions for you if you have time:
    1. Do you recommend using a polarizer?
    2. How did you get rid of the footprints in your image?. Post processing?
    3. Do you remember ~ how may secs you waited after the guide tossed the dust before exposing?
    Thank you for any help you can provide.
    Be well
    Gregory

    • Thanks, Gregory.

      1. Twisting the polarizer in the canyon you’ll notice a slight difference, but I usually remove it because I think the extra light is more important.
      2. The footprints are there, they just don’t stand out in the low light.
      3. The guide usually tosses the sand every 10 or 20 seconds until everyone in his group has had a success (or until the next group forces him to move on). I probably waited two or three seconds, just long enough for the brightness to fade slightly.

      Gary

  4. Once again, Gary, your words are as eloquent as your photographs. Thank you for sharing your knowledge!

  5. Beautiful shots Gary, well spoken advice. By the way the Navajo nation gets the money from the tours, the guides live off their tips.

    • Thank you, Patsy—that’s a good point. I’ve used Navajo guides many times and have always found them more than worthy of a generous tip. They work hard, and really know their stuff. I’ve also gotten a very strong sense that Big Brother (the Navajo Nation) is looking over their shoulders.

  6. One of the thing I enjoy most about reading your blogs now, is when I have been to the spot you are describing, or have been in your workshop and reading the description later. (Obviously, my favorite is having been in your workshop) You describe so many things that I realize happened, but I never paid much attention to before. When I read your description it makes me laugh a lot 🙂 I really, really appreciate your attention to detail, both in your photography and in your story telling.

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