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:
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.
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.
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:
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.
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.
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.
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