Photography locations - Arizona

Antelope Canyon — It Isn’t What It Used To Be (Surprised?)

05.22.13 | 1 Comment

 

The suspension on my truck needed repair, and I found myself in Page, Arizona, for a week in May. The famous Antelope Canyon is located a few miles east of Page on Arizona Highway 98.

Some Background

There are two Antelope Canyons, one called North Antelope Canyon and the other (you guessed it) South Antelope Canyon. The north canyon is more strikingly photogenic, but any slot canyon is going to have its attractions.

At the time I visited there were five independent Navajo companies offering tours of South Antelope Canyon. Three of these companies are in Page, and they each have a fleet of “shuttle vehicles” – trucks or jeeps modified to carry a dozen or so passengers in the back end. They make regular stops at the motels and RV campgrounds to pick up visitors who want to see the canyon. Many times I saw these vehicles full of passengers going to or coming from the canyon between mid-morning and late afternoon. Two other companies have their operations centered adjacent to the highway near Antelope Canyon, one right at the wash to the canyon’s entrance, and another just a little further east on the highway.

When I told the entrance booth attendant (yes, they are well organized) at the first field company that I wanted to concentrate on photography, she recommended that I proceed east to the second field company as they tend to specialize more on photography. I appreciated her willingness to send me to a competitor, and it was a mark of good cooperation between these independent companies.

Prices are higher during the hours that the sun is directly overhead and therefore casting light into the canyon. Prices for every visitor is higher for the tour at this time of day. Special “photo tours” are also aimed at this time, and tour members get to stay about an extra hour (2.5 hours instead of about 1.5 hours); for this they pay approximately double. Tours earlier in the morning or later in the afternoon are slightly less than the “high noon” tour.

Antelope Canyon has been on my bucket list for a long time, so I was willing to pay nearly double for a higher quality photographic experience. In the end, however, all it really got me was more time in the canyon as well as my own personal sand thrower (read on).

The canyon is located approximately one mile down a wide, sandy wash. It takes speed and know-how to travel the length of the wash without getting stuck in the soft, deep sand.

All of the water that sometimes fills the wash during a heavy thunderstorm in the summer months (they call it their “monsoon season”) comes through the narrow Antelope Canyon. Such a storm may affect the canyon 2-3 times each summer. It is the water from these storm events that has created and sculpted the canyon. Needless to say, one does not want to be in the canyon during a storm, as the water may rise 15 or more feet along the canyon walls.

My Photo Experience in North Antelope Canyon

My first hint of what was in store for this photography experience could be seen in the parking lot: more than a dozen shuttle vehicles were parked after disgorging their passengers. I knew the canyon was only about 150 yards in length (1.5 football fields long) and that it was narrow (sometimes only about three feet), so that meant a lot of people were crowded into a relatively small area. I was correct.

 

Shuttle Vehicles Parked at the Entrance to North Antelope Canyon  All photographs in this post were taken with a Canon 1DsMkIII and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II lens.  You don't change lenses in the canyon!

Shuttle Vehicles Parked at the Entrance to North Antelope Canyon All photographs in this post were taken with a Canon 1DsMkIII and a Canon 24-70mm f/2.8 L II lens. You don’t change lenses in the canyon!

Entering the canyon was almost a mystical experience; such is the nature of seeing a natural icon for the first time. Smooth, sculpted forms layered with colors of gold, red, purple, brown, and white were striking beautiful. So many possible compositions could be seen just standing near the entrance, and it got even better as I proceeded on. I just wanted to find a composition, set the exposure to about 15 seconds, shoot, and do it all over again with a different composition. Some walls were receiving light, some were in deep shadow, and some were in transition. It was spellbinding.

But setting up for such a composition was exceedingly difficult. All of the visitors were in groups with a guide, and I first had to wait for an area to clear before I could get a shot. The canyon is a two-way street, and frequently after one group had cleared the area by going further into the canyon, a returning group would come around the corner while my shutter was open. I had to crank up the ISO to make for a shorter shutter time. I also learned to take a couple of “exposure shots” while people were still in the area so I could more quickly get the shot when an area was clear.

I had elected to take a geared head (Arca-Swiss D4) so that I could more precisely frame a desired composition. That was a mistake, because speed was more important than precision. I missed shots while loosening knobs, framing, tightening knobs, and then making fine adjustments – a returning group would often enter the area or a faster group would pass me from behind while I was fiddling with the tripod head.

In addition, I was never alone with my guide. Invariably I was shooting with 5-8 other photographers, and we often had to overlap our tripod legs so that everyone could fit in the shooting area. The guides facilitated this as best as they could. The guides also did their best to keep their group on the move. Even though they may have been representing different companies, I was impressed with the coordination (and comraderie) among the Navajo guides.

One interesting problem was that the beams of light entering the canyon from above had a special allure to some visitors (much like the moving rocks on the Race Track in Death Valley). Many insisted on having their picture taken while standing in a beam of light. You can imagine the light contrast in such a situation: the person is in a high-powered spotlight, while the surroundings are in deep shade. There was no way to make that work, but many people would lag behind their group and keep us from shooting while they posed for a picture. One young lady must have been a model, because she kept giving her photographer friend all kinds of poses over the course of several minutes. I couldn’t resist, and this is what I recorded:

Wait!  The last group hasn't yet left.

Wait! The last group hasn’t yet left.

O.k, the contrast might be a bit high, but your routine is great.

O.k, the contrast might be a bit high, but your routine is great.

What sparkling eyes!  That's a keeper for sure.

What sparkling eyes! That’s a keeper for sure.

So that was one basic aspect of photographing in Antelope Canyon during the peak hour: there were many, many people. I spent far more time waiting to shoot than actually shooting. Waiting for five minutes and shooting for one minute was not uncommon.

Another distinct aspect of photographing in Antelope Canyon when the sun is overhead is that the guides emphasized the beams of light over the sculpted forms. I suppose that’s only natural when the light is present for a relatively short time during the day, and it’s not present at all during the winter months.

So how does one photograph a beam of light, something that can’t even be seen except for a blown-out spot where it hits the canyon floor? You throw sand into it. For the brief moment (~5 seconds) that sand and its accompanying dust is in the beam, the sand/dust makes the beam visible.

There was sand flying everywhere! All of the guides were throwing sand, and being on a special photo tour meant that I had my own personal sand thrower. I soon learned that if one opened the shutter too soon when the sand was still concentrated in one portion of the space, it would reflect almost as much light as the sand on the floor where the beam was hitting. I had to wait for the “decisive moment” when the sand had settled and the dust lingered for just a second or two to get a good shaft of light in the photograph.

Here’s what I mean:

A beam with little to make it visible except for the light on the canyon floor (the photos of the young woman above are really the best examples, because no one was throwing dirt on her):

Little dust in the air.

Little dust in the air.

Open the shutter too soon, and I would catch the mass of sand still high in the air:

Shutter opened too soon.  The light beam comes in two pulses.

Shutter opened too soon. The light beam comes in two pulses.

If too much was thrown by the guide and I opened the shutter while this mass was still in the air, it resulted in a very solid ray:

Too much dust and shutter opened too soon.  Reminds me of a Vulcan death ray.

Too much dust and shutter opened too soon. Reminds me of a Vulcan death ray.

If I waited for a few seconds (it settled out pretty fast), I might get a more ethereal look, which is what I wanted:

Better timing and perhaps a better look.

Better timing and perhaps a better look.

One more quick series. Here I opened the shutter too soon:

Shutter opened too soon.

Shutter opened too soon.

Too much dust and dirt in the air:

Too much debris in the air.

Too much debris in the air.

A somewhat better spirit beam:

A more spiritual beam, perhaps.

A more spiritual beam, perhaps.

But there are three prices to pay for all of this throwing of sand. One is a very dusty camera and lens. I often felt sand raining down on my face. Sometimes a guide threw more sand onto the group of photographers than into the beam of light. When I emerged from the canyon, I could see a layer of red dust completely encircling my lens mount and many of the buttons and dials on the camera body. Most of this could not be blown off, and I spent over an hour using a fine brush to wipe the dust away. When you think of how many grains of dust it takes to affect a photograph, this was a daunting task.

The second price that is paid is the artificiality of the resulting photograph. While sand being blown into the canyon from above is a natural occurrence, this amount and this degree is way beyond normal. It just wasn’t a natural canyon when this was going on.

The third price to be paid for a lot of sand throwing is, IMO, a diverting of time and attention from photographing the natural beauty of the colorful sandstone forms within the canyon. I think sandstone is one of the most interesting and photogenic rocks on the planet. I had just come from Zion, and a short time after leaving Page I returned to the eastside of Zion just for the sandstone. The sandstone in Antelope Canyon is the most three-dimensional sandstone I’ve ever seen, and the lighting is unique. To diminish this aspect of the canyon so that sand can be thrown into beams of light is not how I would choose my time if it were mine to choose, but I could not be free of the mass of people who shared my space in the canyon. I did find some spaces and compositions that emphasized the sandstone over light beams, and these are some of my favorites:

Sandstone Walls #1

Sandstone Walls #1

Sandstone Walls #2

Sandstone Walls #2

Sandstone Walls #3, vertical

Sandstone Walls #3, vertical

Same wall as previous, but horizontal aspect.

Same wall as previous, but horizontal aspect.

Sandstone Walls #4

Sandstone Walls #4

Sandstone Wall #5, detail

Sandstone Wall #5, detail

Sandstone Walls #6

Sandstone Walls #6

I received a note from a photographer friend who said he visited Antelope Canyon back in the early 1980s before it was “discovered” and became a photographic icon. He drove to the mouth of the canyon by himself, shot with a view camera, he was the only person in the canyon, and he left when harsh light beams started to spoil his compositions.

Antelope Canyon is an economic boon for many of the Navajo of the area, and I don’t think I’d operate it any differently if I were in their shoes. The price for a single or small group of photographers, widely spaced with ample time for shooting, would have to be very high to match the revenue obtained from the very large numbers of tourists who just want to visit a famous place, perhaps have their photo taken in a magical light beam, and come away with a few photos to remind them of a wonderful experience.

It’s still a wonderful area to photograph, but the task is difficult and the experience is lessened due to the sheer number of people. I’d go again, but I might choose the first tour in the morning, and I’d strongly consider visiting during the winter months when the tourists are largely gone. The light beams would be gone as well, but the incredibly sandstone formations would still be there. I wonder what the quality of light during these times would be?

1 Comment

  • On 06.23.14 Planning, planning | joebeckerphoto wrote these words:

    […] in the world. I’m just a bit wary about how crowded and commercial it has become (see this blog by photographer Stephen Penland). If any of you have gone to Antelope Canyon, please let me know what you […]

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