It’s hard not to picture the slot canyons of northern Arizona when thinking about the American Southwest; they are an absolute magical place and a visual playground for photographers. It’s also hard to know what to expect when photographing these canyons for the the first time. So with a few trips under my belt (and a few more on the calendar already) I thought it’d be a good time to share some tips I’ve picked up along the way.
1) Take the photo tour, not the sight seeing tour
Most companies in Page, AZ offer two types of tours. The sight seeing tours allow point and shoots, mobile phones and take huge groups of people in at a time. The photo tours (which range from $50-$150) allow DSLR’s with tripods and take small groups of 3-10 people. The photo tours also get more access inside the canyons, put you in front of the large groups of tourists, block off the tourists so you can get shots without people in them, show you the best angles and compositions and share info about the formations and much more.
2) Call and ask for the best time to schedule your tour
The canyons are open year-round, but certain times of the year are better than others. The canyons can get very crowded during high season, but that’s also when the light beams are typically the best. On top of that, depending on what time of year it is, the beams will show up at different times. So make sure that you are scheduling your tour at the right time of the day.
3) Two cameras, two lenses and a tripod
There are certain environments where you just don’t want to be overloaded with gear or changing lenses. The slot canyons are one of those environments. The canyon walls can be very narrow at times, and will require squeezing through and handing your bag and tripod over to the person on the other side. In my opinion, it’s really not worth it to bring a backpack in. Just put your main camera on your tripod, then your second camera on a sling. The main camera should have a wide angle lens (somewhere in the range of 16-35 or 24-70) and the second should have either a prime or telephoto (50 or 70-200).
During my last trip to Lower Antelope Canyon, I only used my Sony a7 with a 16-35. Never had a need for anything else.
4) Aim high to avoid humans
The crowds are hard to avoid, especially during peak season. Your tour guides will block off sections for you at certain areas and give you a minute or two to take photos, but other times you will have huge groups of people walking through the area you’re photographing. When this happens, set your tripod to it’s highest setting and point the camera up over the heads of all the people. Problem solved! The truth is, most of the interesting compositions are above you anyway. I rarely include the ground in my photos of the slot canyons because it’s just a bunch of sand covered in footprints. Not very natural looking most of the time.
5) Focus on the details, not just the big picture
It’s easy to get distracted by the grand views inside the slot canyons. You have a wide angle lens, so why not try to get everything in one shot, right? Don’t forget to focus on the details as well. Look for patterns on the walls and get in close. Look for patterns and shapes up high and zoom in.
6) Pay attention to where the sun is coming in, then turn around
I’ve noticed this during each trip into the slot canyons. When you’re down there, you’ll see areas where the harsh sunlight is coming in to the canyon and it’s really hard to find a good, clean composition. When you see this, turn around. Chances are, the opposite direction will be what you’re looking for. Shooting away from the sunlight is where all the beautiful, diffused and reflected light is found.
7) The sky is your friend, and your enemy
Sure, the sun and sky are what make the canyons so beautiful, but that doesn’t mean they need to be in your shots. The trick is to avoid the sky in your shots whenever you can. Sure, it’s fun to bracket the crap out of a scene to get the full range of light in the canyon, but most of the time it’s not the best option for a beautiful image.
Photographing the slot canyons should be on every photographers bucket list. It’s one of those places where you are just left in awe the entire time and there’s nothing else like it anywhere else on this planet. That being said, it’s good to go in with a plan and to be prepared as much as possible. If you have any more tips, let me know in the comments below. If you have any questions, let me know that too, I’ll answer as quickly as I can!
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