Antelope Canyons - WellsFineArtPhotography

There are two Antelope Canyons. They are located on Navajo land outside of Page Arizona. Though they share a name, they are very different from each other. 

Upper Antelope Canyon was cut by water. It is narrow at the top and wide and sandy at the bottom. Lower Antelope Canyon is wider at the top and narrow at the bottom. It was also cut by water but more of the erosion and shape was caused by wind. 

Though both canyons are are made of sandstone, the colors are different. Lower Antelope Canyon is the more colorful of the two, having some reddish purple hues (from more Iron and Manganese in the sandstone) in addition to the buffs, soft oranges and creams of the Upper canyon.

What the upper canyon has going for it that the lower canyon does not is shafts of light that illuminate the canyon for certain moments of the day.

Both canyons require a guide, not because is is in any way difficult or dangerous, but because the Navajo guides keep the tourists from defacing the canyons and also keep the foot traffic organized and moving. If you want to bring a tripod - and you do - you must pay an extra fee to go on a "photographers tour". I highly recommend tipping your guide as well. They do great work and this is an important source of income for the tribe.

Ladder down into Lower Antelope Canyon

The canyons are subject to the possibility of flash flooding. This is one of the reasons that the Navajo's are in charge of letting tourists into the canyons. At the concession stand, the tribe listens to the NOAA weather station and National Weather Service for flash flood alerts, and will sound an alarm if there is a possibility of flooding. On August 12, 1997, 11 tourists were killed in a flash flood in Lower Antelope Canyon. At that time, there were only wooden ladders leaning against the canyon walls to get out of the canyon. They were quickly washed away. Currently, the ladders are metal and are bolted to the canyon walls. The greatest likelihood of flooding is during the monsoon season, from late July through August.

Lower Antelope Canyon

The first time I was there was in October of 2014. I took the photographer's tour with my friends Gary and Ted. We were there in the early afternoon.

We had a good guide who was very knowledgeable about the best angles and camera settings inside the canyon. He also played the flute when we had to stop and wait for another tour to clear a room or pass us by as we set up our tripods. It was lovely to listen to his haunting pentatonic melodies.

We entered from the top of the canyon and walked slowly downhill, climbing up stairs at the end to get out. We were given a ride back to the parking lot in an ATV. The rest of the non photographer tours went in the opposite direction.

The Trail is narrow in Lower Antelope Canyon

Near the entrance, the diffuse sunlight is brighter than further into the canyon. Oddly, this makes the colors a little duller. As you proceed into the canyon, it gets darker and you have to use your tripod to get a clean shot. The longer exposure in lower light brings out the colors in the rock.

Arch inside Lower Antelope Canyon

One of the most beautiful spots

Swirled colors in Lower Antelope Canyon

The range of brightness in the canyon can be addressed using a tripod to get exposure bracketed shots. While I did take bracketed shots, I generally only developed from a single, slightly underexposed shot, then bringing up the darks in Photoshop. I like to get a full range from black to white in my images to get more drama in the scene.

A tip on camera settings; You will have a very short time to actually get your shot at any particular place in the canyons because there are so many people waiting to pass through your vantage point. Bracketing can be helpful to be sure you get at least one useful exposure.

More color

Printable abstract

The shot above is the only one I printed from this trip. Our guide is the one who pointed it out. The light was diffuse and the colors beautiful. Shooting it in that dim light required a 20th of a second exposure. Because of the angle, I had to shoot it hand-held. Taking it required bracing the back of my head against the wall and looking nearly straight up. Exhale, press and hold the shutter, being careful not to shake the camera.

Our guide leading us up the ladder from Lower Antelope Canyon

In the shot above, the guide is carrying my steady cam rig.

I returned with my wife in October of 2015. This time, we arrived late in the day and took the last tour. It was about 4:30 in the afternoon and the sun was approaching the horizon. They weren't offering a photographers tour at that time of day (though I'm sure they would have charged me and provided a guide if I came with a tripod). We were on our way to Monument valley that night, so I didn't want to take the extra time and expense of a photographers tour that trip. 

As it turned out, I was able to get some good hand-held shots with some difficult to align bracketing. I even got some blue sky because the sun was low. It would have been much better to have shot with a tripod at that time of day. Perhaps another trip.

Lower Antelope Canyon, looking up.

Because I was shooting hand held, I didn't need to set up a tripod. This mean't that I might as well shoot straight up, which would have been difficult to do on a tripod.

Shaft from from above.

More sky

Seeing the sky from inside Lower Antelope Canyon is not a common shot. I like these shots but haven't printed any yet.

Another advantage to going on a late afternoon in October is that there were very few people there. In mid-day and especially in the Summer, it is wall to wall bodies in the canyons. Photographers absolutely need a guide to get a shot of anything other than tourists. The guides work well with each other, keeping people backed up in a chamber around the corner while photographers are getting their slow exposures in another "room". The whole of each canyon is about a hundred yards, with the Lower being longer than the Upper. The canyons are small and narrow for the number of people who want to visit. The fee for a photographers tour when I was there was $60. I made it an even $100 because the guides are worth it. They make the difference between getting a shot and not. After the time and expense of traveling there, it's well worth the extra money.

Road to Upper Antelope Canyon

Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are accessed from the same parking lot. The parking lot is just above Lower canyon. To get to Upper canyon, you must ride about 3/4's of a mile in a 4-wheel drive, open Jeep over deeply rutted soft sand. It is a very bumpy ride. If you have neck or back problems, I wouldn't suggest it.

The sand should also serve as a warning that you need to protect your camera and your lungs. I had my camera wrapped in a zip lock bag with a hole cut out for the end of the lens. I did not bring a second lens. You do not want to open your camera in Upper Antelope Canyon.

I also wore a "buff" (like a stretchy tube that you pull up over your face). Everyone I saw in the canyon looked at me and said or gestured that they wished they had done the same.

Shaft of sunlight and log in Upper Antelope Canyon

The first room we set up in to catch a shaft of light had a pole wedged across one wall. It was fairly close to the entrance.

As I mentioned earlier, Upper Antelope Canyon was carved by water and so has a flat, sandy bottom. That makes it a lot easier to walk around in and also allows more people inside. 

The magic of Upper Antelope Canyon is that at certain times of day - for just a few minutes - light will come down through a crack above and send a shaft down into the chambers below. To make the light stand out, photography tour guides throw a handful of sand into the air. The heavier sand quickly settles out, leaving the dust to illuminate the shaft. The effect is beautiful but also makes it difficult to breathe and keep your gear clean. 

You also have to jockey for position with other photographers in anticipation of where that shaft of light will appear. Everyone was polite, but the atmosphere was intense because the time was short.

A cascade of light

In some areas, the guides throw enough sand to make it drip off the rocks like a waterfall. A slow shutter speed adds to the liquid effect.

Sunbeam and sand fall

Sun shaft and sand fall vertical

On the shot above, I developed it with some color overlay layers to increase the saturation in the rocks. The purples and reds don't really exist in Upper Antelope Canyon, but I thought it needed something to give it depth. One thing I like a lot about this shot is the S-curve of the path.

Close sun shaft and sand falls

I like the shot above because it has a little mystery to it. It is both explicit in the detail of rock and sand and and mysterious in the dripping sand and shaft of light. It lacks the context of the sandy bottom of the canyon and I think that lets it breathe a little more in our imagination. This image  poses the question, "What exactly are we looking at?"

Another shaft and sand fall

I have to say, our guide (I say "our' because there were 3 of us) was absolutely amazing. She would check her watch and run us up the canyon 50 yards to get a shaft of light and then run us back 30 yards to get another one. Mind you, the sun is at a different angle at a different times every single day. This was in early April of 2016 and our guide nailed it. I think we got a shot of every possible shaft of light in Upper Antelope Canyon that day. By the way, it was about noon.

Tall shaft in Upper Antelope Canyon

This is the spot where a photographer captured an image he called "Ghost". He charged a lot of money for for that image, so the spot is called "Ghost" by the guides. I think half the money should have gone to the guide who threw the sand which made the shape of a shrouded person. 

What I like about this image is that it goes all the way to white. It adds a mystery, because our eyes want to resolve what's in that light area near the top of the shaft. It has a spiritual sense to it.

"Ghost" from another angle

I moved quickly to another vantage because this shaft had several minutes of light. It was hard to get a place to set up in the forest of tripods at that location.

Another shaft of light

To sum up, when going to either Antelope Canyon, bring your tripod and pay for a guide. You won't be sorry.

When going to Lower Antelope Canyon, you don't need to be there during the middle of the day when the sun is overhead because there are no shafts of light. Try earlier or later to get a less crowded experience. Don't carry a large backpack. It's tight in there. The upper entrance is a narrow crack and some parts of the canyon are only as wide at the bottom as the width of your shoe. No kidding.

When going to Upper Antelope Canyon, be prepared for a very bumpy ride to and from the entrance. Most importantly, wrap your camera in an airtight bag that is only openable at the front of the lens. Keep your lens cap on until the moment of your shot. Wear something over your nose and mouth. A surgical mask would not be overdoing it. 

Bring only one lens. You will not be able to open your camera to change lenses. I used a 24 to 70 mm zoom on a full frame DLSR for the shots above. A 16 to 35 would have been equally good.

Remember, the colors are not as good in the Upper canyon. The reason to shoot there is the shafts of light. Be there during the middle of the day from about May through September and hire a guide. If you don't have a guide, you won't be allowed into the chamber where the light shaft is happening because the photo guides will keep the regular tourists out.

Have fun!

David Wells


PS - I put a video of entering and walking through part of Lower Antelope Canyon. Sorry about the quality. I had my camera mounted on a steady cam but it's not easy to avoid uneven movement when you have to step carefully in a very narrow slot canyon.

Lower Antelope Canyon

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