Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon is one of the many such canyons in the Page, AZ area, but easily the most famous. These canyons were formed over time as fast-flowing rain water eroded the sandstone in the area, giving the inner walls of the canyon their characteristic ‘flow’.

Antelope canyons’ bright orange and red sandstone, reflecting overhead sunlight forms the beautiful shapes this place is so famous for. To the eye of a photographer an abstract composition awaits at every turn, but the darkness, broken only by bright shafts of sunlight and sometimes a sliver of blue, make capturing this beauty a challenging task. These canyons are simultaneously a photographers dream and nightmare.

The canyons are divided into two, the Upper and Lower canyons, of which the Upper are more easily accesible and hence more popular (and therefore more crowded). Either canyon is accessible only through guided tours which are conducted by a few authorized groups. We booked our visit of the Upper canyons through Navajo Tours for exactly noon to get the best overhead light. While ours was a regular Sightseer’s Tour, they offer a longer Photography Tour as well which presumably will take you to the less frequented sections of the canyon.

On the designated date, upon arriving at the pick-up point and ‘checking in’ (i.e. making the payment for the reservation, in cash!) we were assigned our guide. After a short drive through a dusty stretch of unpaved road, in an open buggy, we were at the canyon entrance. The tour is basically an hour long walk from the entrance to the far end of the canyon. During this stretch, your guide points out the more popular sections of the canyon, sections that would interest the average tourist – some protrusions from the canyon walls that look like faces, or some others that resemble Monument Valley buttes for instance. From the far end back to the entrance is literally a sprint, with your guide constantly hurrying you on. Since the tour guides want keep each tour within its time limit, they don’t take too kindly to people who stop to take photographs on this walk back.

For the amateur photographer such as myself, a few observations I made will probably help. The canyons are a very dusty place – it’s basically fine sand which gets everywhere, so if you have a weather sealed body take it. In fact, it’s so dusty that you are better off taking a wide angle prime lens, instead of one that zooms just to avoid having it suck some dust inside. Don’t even think of changing your lens in or around the canyons. Coming to the photography itself, it’s a multi-pronged challenge:

  1. It is fairly dark within the canyon, your ISO will be quite high which makes it hard to get clean images. If you shoot on Auto, I suspect the ISO will be around the 6400 mark
  2. When sunlight does break through, it does so forming shafts due to the dust within. In such places the dynamic range of the scene is very high. On high ISOs, you lose dynamic range.
  3. Since the canyon walls are so close, in most compositions you will need more depth of field than you think. On a crop body something around f/5.6 works well. This doesn’t help with (1) and hence (2).
  4. Slowing the shutter speed seems like the obvious choice, but if you take the Sightseer’s Tour you can’t have a tripod with you and the crowd will not make it easy to shoot at slow shutter speeds hand-held.

For the photos in the gallery below, the baseline exposure that I used was 1/30, f/5.6 @ ISO 1250. Depending upon the situation, I moved one or more of these numbers around.

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