How to Photograph
Upper Antelope Canyon
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/flood 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 Lower Antelope’s quieter environment is more conducive to creative photography. But it’s Upper Antelope Canyon, with its laser-like beams of sunlight that seem shot from heaven, that draws the crowds—hundreds and hundreds of tourists and photographers each day, jammed tightly 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 from this wonder (have you ever been to Disneyland in July? Or Yosemite?). 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 a pretty decent job of managing the throngs, balancing the needs of the casual tourist with those of the tripod-toting photographers desperate to get their shots.
Most photographers enter Upper Antelope with the single-minded goal of photographing a floor-to-ceiling light beam. For many the Antelope Canyon Holy Grail is the light shaft in the main room just inside the entrance. 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 versions of this particular image doesn’t seem to be a deterrent.
But there are other less known light shafts, some that reach all the way to the dusty floor, others that land on the hard sandstone walls. And I’d argue that the best opportunity to find something unique in this heavily photographed location is to forego the beams and concentrate on the play of reflected light illuminating the canyon’s graceful curves, lines, and shapes. If it’s your first visit to Upper Antelope Canyon, by all means start with the cliché shot (I did), but challenge yourself to find something that’s uniquely yours.
The Upper Antelope 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 slot’s floor), hundreds of photographers line up for their opportunity to capture it. And when I say line up, I mean that literally—most days two ranks of ten or so photographers assemble military volley style, the first rank kneeling in the dust behind their tripods in front of a second rank aiming over their shoulders. Off to the side are Navajo guides, arms outstretched to hold back the next wave, barking “Shoot!” orders like battlefield commanders. As soon as one group finishes (and sometimes before), 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 conveyed by the images (though the footprints are a clue to the mayhem). I’ve seen photographers actually retreat from the canyon because they couldn’t handle the urgent pace, tight quarters, constant jostling, and frantic shouting. But after a ten or so Upper Antelope Canyon experiences (and counting), 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 several images on my “must-have” list, but it’s a huge mistake to think I’ll be able to effectively check-off 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 felt more uniquely mine, keeping my mind open enough to adjust to whatever opportunity presented itself.
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 tumbleweed 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 list.
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 much 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 isolate compelling aspects of a larger scene; wide shots that reveal an entire room; or shapes and relationships formed by the play of shadow and light on the curved sandstone. 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 every image 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, prepare to enter the canyon at the front of your group and to move without hesitation (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 bedlam. I’ve grown to love lingering at the back of my group and shooting above everyone’s head.
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 ceil-to-floor shafts only happen midday, 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 (late morning through early afternoon), 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: If you want to take a tripod (and you definitely should), you must be on a 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 location and timing of each beam almost 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 nearly two hours) in the canyon. While this extra hour usually comes after the shafts have left, it also comes when the canyon is much (!) less crowded—it 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 20 degrees or so 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. (If you’re going in summer, this probably won’t be necessary.)
- Invest in a can of compressed air: Stop by the Walmart in Page and pick up a can of compressed air (if you’re with a group, you can share). I used to keep the compressed air in my room and do a thorough cleaning when I got back, but I’ve started carrying it with me to use in the canyon too. A bulb blower is usually okay in the canyon, but you’ll still want compressed air for later.
- 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 you 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 and on your sensor. 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 was usually my 24-105 when I shot Canon; with Sony it’s my 24-70—both are wide enough on a full frame body 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 16-35). 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, but that might not be the best choice for a first-time visitor hoping to get the classic light beam shots. If you must change lenses, wait until you reach the back of the canyon and get outside.
- Practice changing lenses: If you must change lenses in the canyon, do it inside a plastic bag, and practice before going into the canyon.
- Consider carrying a second body: A second body is a great way to give yourself compositional variety without changing lenses. If you’re like me and don’t routinely use a camera strap, don’t forget to pack one for each body. And be aware that adding the bulk of an extra camera will make you less maneuverable in close confines.
- 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 frequently 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 great for minimizing dust exposure.
- 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. I try to wear something with pockets big enough for my blower or compressed air. 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 touch them as little as possible—I usually start with ISO 400 and f/11 and try to manage my exposure entirely with my shutter speed. On the other hand, it’s amazing how much the light can change as you wind through the canyon, so you will be making exposure adjustments. I spot meter in manual mode, but matrix/evaluative metering in aperture priority is probably easiest for anyone not real comfortable with managing exposure. Since I’m on a tripod and nothing’s moving, I could shoot everything at ISO 100, but in such a frantic environment, the difference between a two-second exposure and an eight-second exposure can be significant when everyone is clamoring for your space.
- 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, which can often be recovered later (as long as they’re not too dark). If you have the base of a light shaft (where it hits the floor or wall) in your frame, there’s a good chance that contact point will be hopelessly blown. As much as I hate blown highlights, I’ve learned to live with this to avoid shadows that are unrecoverable.
- 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. If your camera autofocuses effortlessly in live-view, consider that. I never trusted precise focus choices to my DSLR, but in my Sony mirrorless bodies I can very quickly set the focus point and autofocus.
- 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 always a photo workshop leader, I’m pretty much always at the rear (the leaders’ shots are always lowest priority), which means when the shafts are present I often 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 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 at a more comfortable 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.
I got this version of the upper half of Antelope’s “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, 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” this human profile (see it in the upper right?) in the second hour of our group’s photo tour, when we were on our own to wander in peace. (I’m pretty sure this face is sometimes pointed out by the guides too.) 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.