Canyon Crawling

It’s dark, cramped, crowded, expensive to visit, and wildly over-photographed by professionals and amateurs alike. It’s also the site of the most expensive photograph ever taken and sold (I won’t link to it…you can google it). So, why bother going to Upper Antelope Canyon, enduring the crush, and adding to the over-flowing of glowing slot canyon images (gorgeous and not)? Is it too facile to say, “Because it is there?” Probably. After all, Disney World is ‘there’ and I have no desire to go … there. No, rather, for the lover of natural beauty, the outdoors, all things desert, AND a photographer, sublime images may be had and, special bonus: they are yours.

First, whether a pro or nay, if you want to be able to photograph the canyon at a less than a herd pace and capture images that can be processed to full advantage, you need to use a tripod. That means you must sign up for the Photography Tour. In fact, I recommend it. Non photography tour members can take neither a tripod nor a backpack. As a member of the ‘elite’ and more importantly, much smaller Photography Tour, you must take a tripod (and SLR) and you may take your backpack (though I recommend foregoing it if you can, as it will likely just get in your way). The photography tour costs twice as much ($80) but it is worth the cost, especially if you get a good guide. Our guide was named Leon and he was good. He parted the waves of humanity in-canyon, held them up for us when we were shooting or in the tight narrows, and pointed out structures and potential shots that we likely would have found ourselves — given enough time and less people.

(As a side note, there are, I believe, four Navajo companies managing the tours into Upper Antelope. Little coordination seems to happen between their groups, meaning that rather than a steady flow of selfie-stick waving humanity, you experience waves. At one point the crush was crazy and my elbows and narrowed-up tripod legs defined my turf. Then, the hordes ebbed and a quiet silence descended. I thought: this is really how it should always be.)

You will want a wide-to-medium zoom range lens. Mine covered 16-85mm and was perfect. I could focus tightly if I wanted and shoot quite wide when needed. Mostly my aperture was around f16. Slot canyons should really be photographed utilizing focus stacking techniques, but, given the masses pressing on all sides, the need to move along (2 hours max in-canyon), and the fact that each exposure can take anywhere from 5 seconds to 30 seconds (depending upon your ISO), time is precious and compromise essential.

Most recommendations are to in-camera crop-out any of the sky and super bright spots on canyon walls. Good advice for non-bracketed exposure folks, as the dynamic range extends from blindingly bright to inkwell dark. Neither film not digital sensors can manage that range in one exposure. The few times I tried to include the sky I had to shoot with 5 exposures starting at 5 stops underexposed, all in order to not blow-out the sky. Extreme.

The key to processing the photographs is to both manage the dynamic range and bring out the colors of reflected light on the walls. I shot over 500 images in that 2 hours and present 15 of them here. The personality of the canyon — and by that, I mean the quality of light and character of the walls — varies by season and position within the canyon. The famous (6.5 million dollars!) light beam images are only possible in the summer months. Instead I worked with the abstracts of the eroded walls and tried to capture the changing light and colors as I ranged the confined space with my viewfinder.

Now, when I look at my images, I realize that I should have done some things differently. I contemplate a return.

Though, I am also in no hurry to queue up again.

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7 thoughts on “Canyon Crawling

  1. Jeff, I have been to Antelope Canyon, which may be one of the hardest to get to and most frequently photographed places in the American West, and I’ve seen a lot of photographs of this subject. But these are the most powerful images I’ve ever seen of this magical place. The photographs are so sensual, so erotic, so rich in human resonance, they really transcend the category of geography, and say something, I think, about how we share our psyches with the oldest rocks. Amazing really, what you’ve done here. Bravo!

  2. Thanks Roy for your very generous and kind words. It is very special place and when the crowds dissipated the magic of it tickled the back of my neck. Often in the desert I see sensual and even more overt erotic shapes — male and female — in dunes of sand, standing rocks, canyons and crevasses. Antelope Canyon offered a usually subtle feminine counterpoint to the overly masculine hoodoos we also photographed on this trip. I will be working on a small photographic exhibit that just so explores this yin and yang.

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