Photographing Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona

Antelope Canyon, a slot canyon in Page, Arizona is a popular location for photographers and sightseers, and a source of tourism business for the Navajo Nation. It is only accessible via guided tours, it's not possible to visit the canyon independently.

There are two separate, scenic slot canyon sections, referred to individually as "Upper Antelope Canyon" and "Lower Antelope Canyon". The most popular is the Upper Canyon so that's the one I decided to visit. (description gleaned from Wikipedia)

I had seen photographs from slot canyons in the past and was really excited to try to capture some of the magic, especially the beautiful light shafts.

There are basically two types of tours. There's the general sightseeing one and a photographers tour. I went on both. A passenger truck takes you down a bumpy "road" for about 3 miles. Hold on to your equipment tightly!

The sightseers tour gets you in and out of the canyon in about an hour. It is quite crowded but they keep the traffic going pretty well. There are groups of 12 approximately, each with a guide. One group sticks around a certain area to get all their photos before the next group moves in and so on. The only decent shots you can get are ones pointing up because there are too many kids and people running around. Most annoying are those people with iPads and phones, they just glow everywhere and people tend to hold them up pretty high - right into your shot.

Depending on the day and the time you go, the light can be pretty dark. Our tour was at 8:45am and the light was just beginning to illuminate parts of the canyon as we were finished. I was shooting around ISO 3200 at my widest aperture and some shots were almost 1/2 second. IBIS (in-body image stabilization) in my Fujifilm X-H1 did an amazing job with some of these longer exposed shots, without IBIS, you probably wouldn't get anything usable in those darker areas. Having said that, there are areas that are better lit so you can get some good shots, your choices are just more limited. One thing of note with the sightseers tour is that they do not allow bags or tripods of any kind. So you can't bring a camera bag or even a purse. So, it's you, your camera and a bottle of water. The dust can be pretty bad in the canyon so I'd recommend bringing a Ziploc bag to protect your camera.

The other option is to go on the photographers tour which lasts about 2 hours. It's an investment but worth it for me. Tripods and camera equipment are allowed on this one, of course. The group is much smaller and the tour starts later, allowing the sun to rise in the sky and shine directly down into the canyon creating the famous light shafts. The tour guide creates shots for the photographers, like throwing sand into the air to enhance the sunbeams, etc. They insist you have a "professional camera" and "large tripod" to qualify for this tour. In my experience, no one really cares what gear you have.

The photography groups are usually kept to about 11 or 12 people. Even though there were 11 people booked for my tour, only 6 showed up. None were "professional" photographers, just advanced hobbyists. That was nice because there was no ego or competition going on. Just us 6 dudes trying to get a few good pictures.

With the photography tour, you definitely get preferential treatment over all the other tourists. When the light shafts were good, we were led directly to that location and setup in the optimal position. Even though there were other photography groups there, the guides knew exactly where we could set up without interference "You go low, you go high, extend tripods only to shoulder width please!"

We were allowed about 2 minutes of shooting time for each area before the dogs, I mean tourists were let loose. That may not sound like a lot of time but I found it to be adequate.

The key to both of these tours is the weather. If you go on a cloudy day, the light will be much dimmer and the vibrant colors won't pop as much. Your choices will be even more limited in the sightseeing tour because you won't have the option of a tripod. For the photographer's tour, at least you will have that tripod option but there will be no real shafts of light to shoot on a cloudy day.

Lastly, when you book your trip online, you don't have to pay upfront so that's cool. On the actual day, you can just decide not to go and it won't cost you a penny. You just won't be able to reschedule anytime soon after that as they are usually booked up a few weeks in advance. You can, however, show up on the day. They have two lines at check in, for those who have reservations and those who don't. Off season, you'll probably be able to go either way.

So here are some takeaways at least from my experience with the photography tour:

1. Weather and time of day plays a big role in the quality of your shots. 11am seems to be an optimal time for light beams.

2. Know your equipment. Now is not the time to figure out how to do long exposures. If you want the best quality shots, keep your ISO low, aperture to between f8-f11 and the shutter will probably be in the region of 4 seconds, depending on where you are in the canyon.

3. Keep your equipment to an absolute minimum. There is very little room to maneuver so the less you have to fuss with, the more time you can spend taking pictures.

4. Do not plan on changing lenses in the canyon. Dust is everywhere and it will get all over your sensor.

5. Use the widest lens you have. In many cases, you'll be pretty close to the sunbeams so, in order to capture the entire scene, it's important to go wide. I used my 10-24mm lens (1.5x crop, so 15-36 full frame equivalent) and was at the 10mm end for nearly all my shots. If you don't have a wide lens but are serious about getting good shots, consider renting.

6. Your equipment will get very dusty so be sure to clean it at the very first opportunity you have after the tour.

7. Most of my photographs were just single exposures but I did do a few multiple exposures for later HDR processing. Because there is so little time to get the shot, bracketing will cost you other opportunities for different angles, etc.

8. When you are composing, try to keep in mind that your camera has a very limited dynamic range, far less than some of what you will see in the canyon. When you go from extreme low light to an open sky above, something has got to give. You are going to either sacrifice highlights or shadows, even with bracketing. Try to be mindful about keeping the content of your photograph inside the camera's abilities to capture it. Not always possible but good to keep in mind.

9. I did some research ahead of time on Trip Advisor about this photographers tour and the reviews varied widely (big surprise, Internet). One thing is for sure, the group you go with and the guides themselves will make or break the experience. My little group was friendly and courteous and our two guides worked their butts off on our behalf so my experience was really good. If you do get good guides, please tip them well, they work hard for it.

There are a variety of companies that do tours. This is the one I used and recommend: https://navajotours.com/

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Created By
Steven Dempsey

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