Upper Antelope Canyon
The trip is complete, the photos have been processed (for the most part) and all I can say is “wow, what an experience!” Visiting the canyons exceeded my expectations in complexity and reward. The outfit we used (see link at the bottom) provided access to Upper Antelope, Rattlesnake and Owl Canyons.
We learned a little more about the access permits from our guide, on our drive to the canyons. Upper Antelope issues permits to 5 different outfits. They generally plan their tour times so as to minimize the overlap with the other groups. However, Rattlesnake and Owl Canyons only issue permits to this one outfit. I’ll tell you more about the benefit of that later.
It’s a short drive from Page, AZ to the canyons. The last 5-10 minutes is across a sandy creek bed. We passed right by Rattlesnake and Owl on our way without even realizing it. When you arrive at Upper Antelope Canyon you know you’re there. There are lots of tour vehicles and people at the entrance.
We quickly realized that there are a lot of people at Upper Antelope. Our guide did his best to give us some clear shots but he had to be respectful of the other tour groups, too. We did notice that we were the only ones with tripods. In order to get any sort of shot you need a tripod. We chuckled at the number of cell phone cameras but I’m sure they were enjoying the canyon as much as we were. Oh, and one major bonus – no selfie sticks allowed!
Once you’re really in the canyon you have to work fast yet be patient. There’s not a lot of room to set up your tripod and you may only have a clear shot for a few seconds. I was trying to balance my shutter speed with the ISO and maintaining at least an f/8 aperture (smaller, if possible). At worst I hit a 30 second exposure. Actually that allowed the appearance of a clear canyon because even if someone walked through the shot they probably wouldn’t have shown up.
The 10 shots above were taken during our first pass through the canyon. You walk to the far end and then turn around and come back the way you started. It is the custom to take your time with shots as you walk front to back and then on the return you focus more on allowing others to get shots. You can see the EXIF data for each shot and you’ll notice that it changes dramatically. The ISO never exceeded 400 for any of those shots though. I recall the center portion of the canyon being rather dark.
When you get to the far end you exit the canyon into an open, dry creek bed. This is where the flash flood water backs up and provides pressure on the water passing through the canyon itself. It is the swirling action of the water that creates these beautiful curved lines on the sandstone walls.
Heading back through the canyon I didn’t set up my tripod as our guide asked us not to. I took this opportunity to snap some hand-held shots of all the people in the canyon (I switched to Auto ISO). I realized in all my preparations that I had no idea of the scale of the canyon. When Googling photos of Antelope I found it hard to find shots of people in the canyon so I wanted to get some out there for potential visitors. Upper Antelope had a much taller and longer feel to it than what I was expecting. At times you had to pass certain points one at a time, other areas were large enough for groups to congregate.
The timing of our visit did not allow us to get any light beam shots. I read a lot about these and honestly, going into the canyon I was really hoping to get some. However, looking back on the experience it would have only added another level of complexity to an already very complex shooting environment. Despite not getting those shots I was amazed by the beauty of the canyon and left extremely satisfied with the whole experience.
Leaving Upper Antelope and the crowds we headed a few minutes down the creek bed to Rattlesnake Canyon. Our guide’s company has exclusive rights to this canyon which means one main thing – no crowds! It was just the three of us in the entire canyon and what a unique experience that was.
Rattlesnake is not as tall as Upper Antelope and it is much tighter. My partner and I could take as much time as we wanted and we really took advantage of that feature. I’m sure our guide was rolling his eyes at times as we were making very little progress.
Rattlesnake Canyon has several small ladders like the one above. This is the entrance to the canyon and you’ll see some of the ladders in other photos, too. None are high but it does add another level of adventure.
Sorry for the photo dump above but you just have to flip through the photos and enjoy the natural beauty of the canyon. It is called Rattlesnake, not because you encounter rattlesnakes (thankfully), but because it twists and turns like a rattlesnake. For most of the canyon I could not see my partner (but I could hear the snapping of his camera) or the guide.
It was wonderful to be able to really enjoy the canyon, touch the walls, feel the texture left by the water and soak in the colors of the sandstone. Upper Antelope was worth doing because it’s the one everyone talks about but Rattlesnake was unlike anything else. The peacefulness of the canyon allows you to get a greater appreciation for the whole experience.
Another difference between Upper Antelope and Rattlesnake is that Rattlesnake is a one-way canyon. To get back to the start you exit the canyon and walk above it which was another great experience. I found it very interesting to see the canyon from another vantage point.
Finally we made it to Owl Canyon. This canyon is much wider than the others. The sun was shinning down into the canyon the entire time. We found that this canyon had a lot more life in it, too. There were lots of little lizards scurrying out of the way as we approached and we were surprised at the number of caterpillars crawling around beneath our feet. We even spotted some fantastic moths. Overhead there were lots of small birds flying around catching bugs. Unfortunately, we did not see any owls for which the canyon is named. The guide pointed out one of their nests but it was vacant during our brief visit.
I didn’t take as many photos in Owl Canyon. I think at that point I was done with my camera honestly. I had probably taken about 150 photos already. It was nice to just enjoy the canyon and being out in nature.
When we finished in Owl Canyon we got back into the vehicle and headed back to Page, AZ. I think we were giddy with all the amazing photos we had just taken.
Photography and the tour
Now, to delve a little deeper into the technical side of the photography. I believe all the reading I had done adequately prepared me for shooting in the canyons. In Upper Antelope I struggled a bit more as I managed the crowds and the lighting conditions. I was trying not to experience the canyon just behind the lens, too.
The tripod was essential. You had to be mindful of the legs because, if you set them out too far, you would interfere with the other tourists in the canyon. I tried to take my time but at the same time I tried not to fret over getting the perfect shot. Like I said in the beginning I set my f-stop and then peeked at my shutter speed. If it seemed too long then I bumped up the ISO but stopping at ISO 400. I probably could have made other adjustments to keep the ISO lower but with all that was going on I decided to limit myself. Sometimes I was so rushed that I didn’t even know what my shutter speed was. I just snapped the picture and waited for the shutter to close. Obviously, this wasn’t ideal but it worked.
You’ll notice one of the photos in Upper Antelope has some sand falling. Our guide threw some sand up on this ledge and before I knew it I was trying to shoot it. It was in recalling this shot that I realized getting the light beams would have been really tricky. Managing the crowds, the lighting, framing the shot and timing it when the guide tossed some sand into the light beam would have been very challenging. I would have been lucky to get anything.
The rain cover we got (see previous post) was not a bad idea but since there weren’t any light beams present at the time of our tour I don’t think it was totally necessary, especially if you have a weather sealed camera. I had contemplated using a remote trigger since the rain cover was cumbersome. In the end I just used the built-in 2 second timer on my camera.
When we got out of Upper Antelope and into Rattlesnake we both decided to start bracketing shots. Obviously we had the time to do this there since there were no crowds. My intention was to layer these exposures but when I got back to my computer I realized that it wasn’t necessary. But the bracketing wasn’t completely wasted. In several instances I used the shot at a -1 exposure bias rather than the neutral exposure. There are some shots where the highlights are totally blown out but I actually like how that looks and it’s much truer to the experience in the canyon.
Processing the RAW files in Lightroom was not too challenging. I have a preset that I like and that got me close to where I wanted to be. Adjusting the temperature of the image provides a nice effect, too. Other than that it was just tweaking the highlights and shadows that were already present.
The tour group we used was Adventure Antelope Canyon Photo Tours. I would highly recommend them. Make sure you pick a tour that includes Rattlesnake Canyon. That was definitely a very special experience in my opinion.
My hope is that this post provides a little something for everyone. Hopefully the technical aspects are useful to a photographer planning on visiting these slot canyons and the numerous photos present an accurate account of what it’s like in the canyons. Of course, nothing beats being there in person but sometimes that’s just not feasible. Stay tuned for a subsequent post on all the other photo opportunities we had in the area.