I really was looking forward to photographing Lower Antelope Canyon; it was a place that was never going to deviate from my road trip schedule. The narrow slot canyons in Northern Arizona are something that I’ve never experienced anywhere in the world and the images of the area that previously caught my attention were best described as: moody and mysterious.
The canyon system is the result from thousands of years of water erosion, and with each passing period, would leave behind a layer of wavy texture caked into the surface that just seemed to bend light in a way that leave you mesmerised.
There are various ways of exploring Lower Antelope Canyon, all of which require attending an organised tour as the lands are owned and operated by the Navajo Nation. There are two companies that are authorised to provide tours to the lower canyons: Dixie Ellis and Ken’s Tours, who are both located on the premises.
Which tour should you go with to see Lower Antelope Canyon? To be honest, I couldn’t find any reviews that could make me decide to go with one over the other. Online reviews as well as recommendations from friends all had good things to say about both operators, but In the end, I went to Dixie Ellis out of convenience because they had room on the tour that was to leave in fifteen minutes after arriving.
Both operators offer general tours as well as guided tours for photographers. The differences are quite obvious but the durations and experiences are vastly different.
The general admission group have a maximum number of twenty four guests, which is a huge amount given how narrow some of the passageways are. They also depart every twenty minutes and last one hour in duration.
The photography tours are tailored specifically to photographers, with the tours being led by guides who at least have some level of proficiency behind the camera. Groups are limited to ten, although when I went, we only had five in the group. The pace is slow, allowing attendees plenty of time to get the shot that they are after. At no point did I ever feel rushed, and we ended up going beyond the two hours allotted without the group leader being too concerned.
Attendees in the photography group must also carry a tripod, which I had no problem with this as I guess it’s a way of making sure that everybody is serious about being there. My guide was a young man by the name of Tai, who knew a lot about photography and we had many discussions on photographing the surrounding areas and Arizona in general. He also provided some useful tips on handling the the changing light within the canyon system throughout the session as well as where hidden angles and compositions to photograph were. This alone was worth the fee in my opinion.
Here are some useful tips and information to will ensure that you will get the most out of your visit to Lower Antelope Canyon.
Decide on one lens, or bring two bodies
There will be some, if not, a lot of dust floating around within Lower Antelope Canyon, so changing lenses inside the canyon would not be the brightest idea. The dust levels vary throughout the year. During the dry season, there is less rain, resulting in lighter dust particles that are susceptible to being dispersed into the atmosphere from visitors walking through. During this time, the guides will also throw up a handful of dust to magnify the lighting effects. This is more prevalent in Upper Antelope Canyon however, where the shafts of light during are more common during the summer months. During the winter months, there is more rain in the area, thus making conditions less dustier as well as cooler.
My strategy with lens selection was to put the 16-35mm lens on my Nikon body as I knew based on the images that I saw that the wider shots would yield best results. I also didn’t want to count out using a telezoom lens, so I put on the 40-150mm (80-300mm equivalent) lens on my Olympus OMD in case I needed it. I did take a few shots at the longer focal length, but have not included them in this blog.
Look for lines, shapes and textures in your composition
When photographing Lower Antelope Canyon, the main features to capture are the colours and textures on the walls, ridge lines and the the light that reflects and interacts with the canyon. Nobody would care if the camera is horizontal, so just find unique leading lines and compositions by by experimenting with tilting both your head and camera back.
A tripod is a must
The images that I saw online were deceptively bright, but the average shutter speed that I was taking was around one second at ISO100. So in order to obtain the sharpest images possible with minimal noise, you will require a sturdy tripod.
Use the your guide’s knowledge
A guide’s role is to ensure that you get the most value out of your visit; meaning you shouldn’t leave the canyon thinking that you missed out on some key images. They have extensive experience leading photography tours there, and know pretty much every composition available. If you’re after a particular shot, take a screenshot of what you need and they’ll pretty much know where you can get it from.
They can also ask people from the general tours to move along if they are in your way. It doesn’t give you permission to be a jerk though; they usually ask the leader of the other group to hurry things along.
Shoot in manual/aperture mode, raw format and bracket
With the tight confines of Lower Antelope Canyon, you will have to have sufficient depth of field to ensure all of the lines, colours and textures will be sharp all the way through from the front to the back of the image. On a normal landscape shoot, I can get away with shooting at F8. However, within the canyon, I was average around f12-f14. In order to consistently shoot within this aperture range, you will want have you camera set in manual or mode aperture mode.
As a result of having the aperture stopped down so much, a shutter speed of 1 second was required in order to obtain a normal exposure
The biggest challenges of shooting inside the canyon will be obtaining a balanced exposure. This is even more so when when facing the camera in an upward position into the sky above. The the variation in light between the dark shadows at the bottom of the canyon, to the highlights high above is up to three stops, which makes obtaining a balanced exposure impossible.
Most photographers would say to expose for the highlights and recover shadow detail in post processing, but even with the technology in the new camera sensors, recovering detail from the shadows from three stops down results in an unnatural look. My recommendation would be bracket between at least three images at various exposures (check your histogram still) and combine them using HDR software. If you’re proficient with Photoshop, you can manually blend exposures in Photoshop.
Other useful information
Where to stay: Page is the closest city with many options ranging from mid range to budget hotels, restaurants, cafes and a shopping centre. I stayed at Rodeway Inn which is a ten minute drive from Lower Antelope Canyon.
How many hours will a tour last?: Allow a couple of hours to tour Lower Antelope Canyon. If you want to shoot Upper Antelope Canyon, tour operators are literally across the road. It is possible to do both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon in one day. If so, keep the entry stub otherwise you’ll pay the $6 park fee, twice.
How long do I need to stay? I stayed two nights in Page which was sufficient. Horseshoe Bend is not too far away, so using your time to photograph that location is beneficial as well.
Post processing images in Photoshop: Jimmy McIntyre has a section of free tutorials on how to do this that are easy to understand.