In August of 2016 I paid my first visit to Upper Antelope Canyon in Page Arizona. I had wanted to visit here for several years before I got around to finally taking the plunge. I knew exactly what I wanted to accomplish and set out determined not to blow the opportunity. And believe me I have been known to blow photographic opportunities before, mostly due to being unprepared.
I had studied many photographs of Antelope Canyon, and read way too many “How to Photograph….” articles each one, of course, expressing a completely different opinion and my “How To…” will be no different.
There are many horror stories about photography in Upper Antelope Canyon; The crowds, the dust, the high price, the difficulty, all of which are true. It is an extremely challenging location and can be completely frustrating if you don’t approach it right. My Navajo guide told me she felt that many of the photographers on the Photography Tours seemed unprepared for the experience, and did not know what they wanted to accomplish.
The first thing you need to be prepared for are the crowds. Late May to early August is the busy time for the canyon. My trip was at the end of August and the crowds were still fairly large but nothing compared with June or July, which are supposed to be the worst. The canyon is really not that large, being about 600 feet long, 20 feet or so at its widest and maybe 4 -5 feet at its narrowest and generally crammed with 200 or more people. The crowds are unavoidable, so just take them in stride and do your thing. If you are on the tour the guide will do a marvelous job of managing the crowd for you.
I have heard some condemnation of the Navajo for allowing this situation to exist and profiting from it, but I cannot see it as their issue. The canyon used to be open to the public. People would stay the night and start fires in the canyon staining the walls with soot. They would leave trash, and beer bottles, and carve their names into the sandstone. Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation were discussing closing the canyon to the public when in 1997 eleven tourists were killed by a flash flood in Lower Antelope Canyon, which was caused by a rain storm some 10 – 15 miles away. Well that was the end of the discussion and all of the canyons have been closed ever since, unless accompanied by a guide. The Navajo take great pains to watch the weather and they will close down the canyon if necessary. It seems that requiring guides to get into the canyon has created a bottleneck making the crowds worse, but it seems to be a necessary and practical evil.
If your intent is serious photography reserve a spot on one of the Photography Tours. Tripods are not allowed on the regular tours. The photo tours fill up fast, and I booked my reservation about two months prior to my visit.
Although I had to share the canyon with hundreds of other people I now had my own personal Navajo guide into the canyon, and she was amazing. She directed the crowds away from me, emptied rooms out for short periods of time, and shielded me (sometimes literally standing in front of my tripod with her arms outstretched) from the tremendous commotion in the canyon. All the while she was shouting at and maneuvering the crowds to accommodate me, and somehow made them love her for it. She seemed to know exactly what was necessary in order to give me the best opportunities. She was quite young but I got the impression she had been doing this for some time. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky and the light in the canyon was as good as it gets. I was so intent on the task at hand I wasn’t even aware of the crowd after a while. All I needed to do was focus on my procedures and my photography.
I decided early on to only bring my two favorite lenses:
My SMC Pentax-DA 14mm F2.8, and my Pentax HD DA 35mm f/2.8 Macro Limited, and of course my trusty Pentax K-3.
All I carried into the canyon was my tripod and my small field bag containing a cable release, extra lens, blower brush, cleaning cloths and extra batteries. The weather was mild so I did not worry about dragging water along, although I would think twice about this if the weather were hot. The canyon is cool, but extremely dry and dusty.
I shoot manual exclusively no matter the situation, but I think that shooting manual in the canyon is essential. If you are not familiar with shooting your camera in manual mode, Learn! You will not be disappointed. The lighting range in the canyon is extreme and your camera may not make proper automatic decisions. My Pentax would not in similar situations, which became very disheartening and is one of the reasons I made the move to shooting manual.
The lighting in the canyon covers a range of light from the blackest of blacks to the most blinding white whites. No amount of exposure compensation will accommodate the whites. They are truly white, blinding white. In general I tried to judge the range of light and shadow (think Zone System) and expose accordingly. I metered on the mid-range shadows, and shot anywhere from -1.0 EV to -2.0EV depending on my perception of the light range. Use your histogram to verify your exposure and try to center it as best you can, perhaps leaning to the right a bit. If you are not blowing things out to the left or right you can easily deal with the image in post-processing.
I decided that I would lock down two of my three shooting parameters at the outset (ISO and F-Stop). I started with my ISO at 100. I was not sure that this would suffice, but I wanted the lowest ISO I could get away with so I would start there and see how far I got. It turns out that this setting got me through the entire shoot, although it did lengthen my exposure times.
Auto or Manual Focus
I have read many opinions regarding auto vs. manual focusing. Most opinions seem to be hard over one way or the other, but I found the light in the canyon to be sufficient for auto-focus in every instance but one. At that time my guide (who seemed intimately familiar with every possible contingency) picked up on my distress and casually produced a small pocket flashlight which she shined on the point of interest allowing my auto-focus to work. After which I turned the focus switch to manual in order to take several shots from this location without having to re-focus.
Hyperfocal Distance It is fairly hard to judge distance accurately in the canyon due to the variations in light and the undulating walls. There is a rule of thumb in landscape photography that I use frequently and found most helpful in this situation. I used single-point auto-focus and focused a tad further than one third of the way into the frame, not regarding distance at all. This seemed to work out quite nicely. I got a surprisingly deep depth of field, which pleased me no end.
Shoot the lowest ISO you can and be prepared for some fairly long exposures. You are on a tripod so if you can protect your set up from the commotion you should be fine. Make sure your tripod is solidly sunk into the sand, and extend the rubber feet instead of the points. This helps compact the sand making it more solid. My exposure times ranged from 1/8 of a second to 30 seconds, and I had no issues whatsoever. Everything came out great.
Mirror Up The Mirror-Up function is a wonderful feature and should be used whenever possible and appropriate. It will remove the tiniest bit of movement from the exposure adding just a hair more sharpness to the image. I am obsessed with sharpness. I agonize all of the time over not quite acceptable levels of sharpness in my images. In this case I think it paid off. I was quite pleased with the sharpness I obtained, and I am sure the mirror-up function contributed to this.
Changing Lenses I simply waited until I got to the far end of the canyon near the exit to change from my 35mm to my 14mm. I decided in advance to shoot one lens going one way and the other coming back. It is very dusty in the canyon and I did not want to attempt changing lenses inside. Some recommend that you shoot only one lens, or a zoom lens to avoid having to switch. This is perfectly acceptable, though I did not find changing lenses an issue.
There is much hoo-haw surrounding the famous Antelope Canyon sunbeams. My impression upon seeing my first canyon sunbeam was how beautifully ethereal, frail and delicate, almost other-worldly they are. However the go-to thing on the tour is to throw sand up in the air to enhance and brighten the sunbeams. The canyon is naturally dusty and the shuffling crowds don’t help matters. Throwing sand like this generates a tremendous amount of additional dust in the air making the sunbeams terribly garish and obvious. The extra dust spoils photo opportunities for precious minutes at a time (remember you only have two hours), and is not so great for your camera either. I found this practice to be completely unacceptable, and I asked my guide to please not do it on my account. You will have decide whether or not this suits you. I did not like it at all.
I found out after the fact, and much to my extreme disappointment that you cannot sell your Antelope Canyon photos (or any photos taken in the Navajo Nation) without having first obtained a photography permit from the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation Department. Actually you can obtain a permit after-the-fact, but it is many times as much as the before-the-fact permit. I went ahead, sucked it up and obtained one, but you can save yourself the heartache and the dollars if you just apply in advance of your visit. It takes 2 – 3 weeks to process, and you can apply by contacting the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation. You must apply for a specific date, time and location so plan accordingly. When I first applied for the after-the-fact permit it was $200.00, but as you can see below it is now $500.00, so definitely plan way ahead.
Special Use Permits (non-refundable) – for photography/filming (Per Location)
Processing Fee/application for 1-3 people $100.00
Processing Fee/application for more than 3 people $200
Processing Fee/application (After the Fact) $500
Tip Your Guide
I was unaware that it is customary to tip your guide. I did not and I hope she didn’t resent me for it. She didn’t seem to care, but if anyone deserved a big tip it was her.