Antelope Canyon was one of my stops on my US road trip, and a place I was so looking forward to photographing. As opposed to a lot of the places I visited along my route, summer’s actually a decent time to photograph the set of slot canyons in Arizona. The sun is higher and reveals a variety of light beams throughout the canyon.
Upper Antelope Canyon
There are two sets of canyons that form ‘Antelope Canyon’ – Upper and Lower. I visited Upper Antelope Canyon, which is by far the busier of the two, but from my perspective, a bit more photogenic. If I had more time I would have done both, but there were other spots around Page, AZ which I wanted to visit – Horseshoe Bend and the Toadstool Hoodoos.
If you are going to visit Upper Antelope Canyon in the tourist season, I would strongly recommend taking a photo tour. The area sees hundreds of tourists an hour make their way back and forth the short and narrow route, and without a guide to managing this, it becomes almost impossible to obtain usable images.
I won’t sugar coat my experience on the photo tour – It was pretty manic. Because of the volume of people, you find yourself having to set up and prepare your composition and settings with limited time, often (literally) shoulder to shoulder with two other photographers.
Having read reviews before I planned my trip I was fully expecting this, so it didn’t surprise me, but I did get the impression that other photographers there were a bit uncomfortable. It’s the opposite of what most landscape photographers want when it comes to establishing a relationship with a subject they’re trying to shoot, but as long as you set your expectations and make peace with the fact you’re going to be in a tourist trap on the clock, the images you can come away with will numb that feeling once you start to edit.
Having said this, I can’t fault the guide we had from Antelope Canyon Tours (website) – He clearly cared about the area and shared the frustration with how many guide licenses are granted to Antelope Canyon, having been one of the first operators in the area to have one.
He was extremely knowledgeable about both the compositions in the canyon and the exact times the shafts of light pierce the canyon ceilings. We would often arrive in areas with no beams of light, only to have them appear before us once we had set our compositions and focus. This wasn’t coincidental – He clearly knew the schedule and route for the particular week in the year to present us with fantastic lighting throughout the canyon.
The guides also block off the front and rear of your composition from foot traffic, meaning for a brief period of time you do get see the canyon in its empty state, which obviously pays dividends with your images. They also throw around sand to suspend in the air to strengthen the contrast in the shafts of light.
For the most part, they’ll point out compositions and scenes – Which for the purists is probably a turn off, but with quite literally 180 seconds to set your tripod, compose your shot, focus (in very low light), set a number of bracketed exposures and tweak your aperture and ISO for each shot, you’re being optimistic assuming you’ll have time to explore compositions on this tour – Lower Antelope Canyon is your place for that.
There are a few spots around the canyon which you can have more of a freedom shoot – you have 5 minutes here and there while waiting for groups to clear where you can try out a few things, and I managed to get some really nice compositions outside of the tour just by looking around and picking out areas of tones.
- My first suggestion with these canyon tours – Tripod! Going in handheld thinking you can just shoot at f4, ramping up the ISO and praying over your IS lens isn’t going to cut it. It’s dark in there, you need a tripod.
- Secondly, a wide lens is probably obvious – I took my 24-70mm in and struggled a bit – I’m kind of used to getting away with 24mm now but in hindsight, I would have liked to take in a 16-35mm.
- Bring a lens brush and a blower. There’s a tonne of suspended sand in Antelope Canyon, and sand isn’t your camera’s friend. I saw one photographer using a lens cloth to clean it off his $1400 lens and it sent a shiver down my spine. Sand + Lens cloths = Sandpaper. Sandpaper + Glass = you ruining your fancy lens. Take a lens brush to flick the particles off the lens and blow any other residue off with a lens blower.
- Know your camera – If you’re new to photography, spend the night before getting to know your camera settings and how to quickly manage ISO, aperture and shutter, and practice low light focusing to understand the capabilities of your camera rig. It’s a rush to take photos on these tours, and you’ll miss chances if you’re spending too long figuring out exposure and focus.
Worth the hustle?
All in all, whatever kind of photographer you are, Antelope Canyon is well worth a visit just as long as you set your expectations before you go – It will be rushed, a bit manic and fiddly, but the images speak for themselves. There are other gorgeous and quieter slot canyons around Arizona, but Antelope Canyon is famous for a reason.
If you’re after a peaceful exploratory shoot, include Lower Antelope Canyon in your trip, or check out Canyon X which is just down the road. It’s a lovely set of smaller slot canyons, not as dramatic as Antelope Canyon, but with only a handful of people exploring them, it’s a much less frantic experience. You also don’t need a guide in Canyon X (you do with all Upper Antelope Canyon tours), so I was left on my own to take all the time I needed to look around. There’s always a guide nearby should you need some advice.
I managed to catch an amazing light shaft on my visit, as well as some more artier shots of the canyon walls. Check out Canyon X for more information.
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