Photographing Antelope Canyon – Gently carved and formed by the erosion of Navajo sandstone over the course of countless centuries, Antelope Canyon outside of Page, AZ is one of the most bewildering places on earth. Over time rainwater, particularly during flash flooding, ate away the passageways of the canyon, making the corridors deeper and smoothing the canyon walls in such a way as to form distinctive ‘flowing’ shapes in the rock. The canyon includes two separate slot canyon sections known as Upper Antelope Canyon (“The Crack”) and Lower Antelope Canyon (“The Corkscrew”). Both offer spectacularly vibrant colors when the sun shines overhead, producing deep contrasting textures and layers of sandstone.
It’s not only a stunning place for photography, but a pretty challenging one as well…
In Upper Antelope Canyon, the guides on the photography tours bring a shovel and will scoop sand onto ledges to create sand falls for long exposures.
1. Plan Ahead
When photographing Antelope Canyon, you really need to plan your trip well in advance to make the most of your limited time in the canyons. If possible, try to plan your trip between March and October because the sun is more overhead creating the shafts of light coming straight down into the canyon during the mid-day (11a.m. – 1p.m.). This isn’t exactly a secret, which makes this next point even more important…
2. Book a Photography Tour in Advance
Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon can only be explored with guides and their excursions can sell out, particularly during those busiest months between March and October. Many outfitters offer both a scenic tour as well as a photography tour, on which your given extra time to shoot and guides will hold back other tours for a few minutes to allow you people-free compositions. I can’t recommend paying more for the photography tour enough – It was worth every single penny to have that extra time to shoot. It’s pretty impressive how the whole operation is choreographed between the guides.
*Update: I’ve now heard that photo tours are no longer offered during the peak season… good luck!
3. Know Your Gear & Don’t Change Lenses
The canyons are so narrow, you’ll want to use the widest lens you have (I was using a 16-35mm) and you definitely want to avoid changing lenses when you’re in there. There is so much dust in the air, there’s no way you’ll get it done without getting dust and sand inside your camera body and on the sensor. And despite having a little bit of extra time on the photo tour, it’s still a very rushed experience. Changing lenses will eat into your already very limited time while photographing Antelope Canyon.
You’ll also really need a tripod to hold your camera steady at slower shutter speeds, but also… know how to adjust your tripod quickly! A guy on one of my tours spent half his tour wasting time simply fumbling with his tripod to move it into different positions for varying compositions. You’re going to be moving fast while adjusting your tripod in very narrow, awkward spaces.
Make sure to bring a remote trigger or know how to use your camera’s timer settings. It’s usually best practice to do this anyway with all landscape photography, but with Antelope Canyon, you’ll be moving around a lot (exercise…) and feeling some pressure – it’s going to be even harder to have a steady hand and physically press that shutter button smoothly.
And finally, you’re going to want to know how to shoot manually (see the next point) and be quick about it. The same guy on my tour that didn’t know his tripod, also didn’t seem to know his camera very well. There were times where he seemed to barely get dialed in and the guide was already moving the rest of us along. (On the plus side, this was a huge benefit to me because he slowed down the whole process allowing the rest of us in the group to shoot more leisurely and in different spots – We’d move ahead in the canyon and shoot spots where we normally wouldn’t have stopped because we were waiting on the guide to track down the other guy.)
4. Know the Exposure Triangle Well & Watch the Histogram
The lighting in the canyons can be very difficult to work and it was tough to trust the internal meter. You’ll want to know how to shoot manually to control your shutter speed and aperture for proper exposure and depth of field, while keeping your ISO as low as possible. While using ISO100, I found shutter speeds were anywhere in the 1-second to 10-second range while I kept my aperture around f/8-f/16 to maintain a large depth of field.
When in the canyon, watch your histograms on the images you’ve shot and adjust as necessary for proper exposure.
5. Shoot RAW
This is another good guideline for photography in general, but you’ll want to shoot RAW because RAW files are uncompressed files that records data from the camera sensor “as is.” This will give you much more control in post processing to recover tonal data and save what could be an otherwise useless, throw away image.
6. Bracket / Take Multiple Exposures
I know I’ve preached about how little time you have in the canyons and even though this will take more time, I think it’s still a good idea to bracket your images in order to really nail the exposure when photographing Antelope Canyon. You’ve paid a good amount of money and have spent a good amount of time to end up missing a shot because you missed the exposure. I also blended exposures in post to bring out the entire range of the scene, particularly when including the sky in the frame.
7. Don’t Use Filters
When photographing Antelope Canyon, you just don’t need filters and they can prolong your shutter times.
8. Look Up & Include the Sky
Before shooting the canyons myself, I read a lot about how you should avoid incorporating the sky into your compositions. I totally disagree with that. Try not to get lost in what’s in front of you and remember to look up. I found that some of my favorite images were shot straight up and included the sky. (This is when you’ll definitely want to bracket to capture the entire range in the scene and blend in post.)
(Sidenote: This image looks very good blow up on wall… wink, wink…)
9. Focus on Some Details
After a while of photographing Antelope Canyon, a lot of my shots began to look similar. Make sure to look around and try to focus in on some of the details of the canyon and try to capture something different. I don’t think I did this very well.
10. Incorporate Someone Into Your Shots
I think this is actually pretty challenging because there are so many cameras pointed at the same spot for such a limited amount of time. If you’re with a group of strangers, it’s tough to ask everyone else to stop shooting so you can put someone in the middle of the scene that everyone’s already taking pictures of. However, if you can make it happen, do it. Incorporating someone into the scene really adds some depth and character.
(Another hurdle is traveling alone… Luckily the guides are super helpful.)
11. Work With Your Guide & Speak Up
I felt the guides were truly there to help and they did know their photography pretty well and were photographers themselves. If your guide recommends an angle or composition, check it out and shoot it – it won’t be unique, but it’ll probably be awesome. If you need another moment at a spot, ask for it, particularly if you have seconds left on an exposure. And if you’re struggling with something, ask for help. In the Upper Canyon, I wanted some more sand-fall shots so towards the end of the tour, I just asked my guide if we could do more… no problem!
Hopefully this helps you with photographing Antelope Canyon and you’ll come away with some unreal images from these incredible canyons.