Sunday, February 22, 2015

Lower Antelope Canyon, Page, Arizona Photographing the Slot Canyons, Tips and Recommendations

Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Tribal Park, Page, Arizona.

This photo was shot with a Nikon D810, 17mm to 35mm AFS Nikon lens, bracketed 5 times (-4 to +4), and processed in Adobe Photoshop CS6 using Nik (Google) HDR Effects Pro 2, Nik (Google) Sharpener 3, Nik (Google) Viveza, and Topaz Clarity software. I also used a de-noise program but not sure which one as I use three different ones depending on the photo.  The ones I use are Neat Image , Topaz DeNoise 5, and Nik (Google) Define 2.  All of these perform great depending on the photo.  

If you have never been to either the Upper Antelope Canyon or the Lower Antelope Canyon then you have one or two things to add to the bucket list.  This place is pretty spectacular.  I have always gone as a photographer and that sometimes takes over the experience.  I would like to just go and walk through and absorb the place.  I took Lower Antelope Canyon Tours owned by Dixie Ellis and family.  The guide was Quintana (lost the card.. hope I spelled that correctly) and she was excellent.

I will tell you a couple of things about shooting in the canyons.  These tips will make life easier for you.


The canyons are dusty and that dust would love to land on your sensor.  Please don't give it the opportunity.  I never change lenses in the canyons.  Take two bodies if you have to, though I don't recommend it.  Be prepared to get the sensor cleaned after shooting the canyons for a couple of days.  The dust finds its way in no matter what.  Just a hazard of the job.

Take one camera, one zoom lens in the 16mm to 35 mm area, a great tripod, a large 2-gallon ziploc bag or other bag, remote release (corded or not), lens cleaning brush or cloth, water, good hiking shoes, and a hat with a brim like a baseball or other .  NO CAMERA BACKPACKS.  Learn to use the "long exposure noise reduction" settings on your camera.  You will want long exposures if they are putting dust in the air for effect so low ISO settings.  Below is the explanation for each.

Zoom Lens:

I have seen some people shooting with every lens available in the canyons but the 16mm - 35mm and 28mm to 70mm seem to be most popular and they are happy.  Here is the reason;  the canyon is dark but the opening at the top of the canyon to the sky will blow out due to over exposure.  Having a zoom allows you to zoom in and cut out the opening at the top.  You can try to bracket your photos and then perform High Dynamic Range processing.  I have completed 7 brackets and the opening at the top of the canyon still be lost to over exposure.   A great lens hood or even an after market lens hood that is over sized may come in handy.  You are shooting up most of the time and lens flare can be a problem.

One other item to note on the lens focal length is depth of field.  The more zoomed out the shallower your depth of field will be for a given aperture setting.  I like the 17 to 35mm lens and set it at around f8 to f13.  Beyond that f13 and things begin to soften up and below f8 my field of depth is more shallow than I want.  Remember that while you may be looking 10 or 20 feet ahead the walls of the canyon will be very close on the edges of the photograph.  Some people like that to be buttery soft bokeh.  Some like sharpness in those area to show the grainy nature of the sandstone.  Personal preference will rule, but if you don't have the settings right you will be stuck with what you get.  You can always go back and re-shoot everything.  I will never admit to how many times I have actually done that, but trust me it is more than I wanted.

Great Tripod:

Everything you shoot in the canyon should be on a tripod.  The tour companies will not sell you a ticket for a photographer's tour (2 to 2.5 hours long) unless you have one.  The exposures in the canyon can get rather long.. some in the 20 to 30 seconds range. Hand holding is impossible unless you use a really high ISO and that degrades the photos in a number of ways.. read on.

Ziploc Bag or equivalent:

The bag is to cover your camera on the walk through the canyon when not shooting.  I have been in the canyon on days that have no wind blowing and it is perfectly fine without a bag (provided a guide is not throwing sand and dust in the air for effect).  However, you are in a slot canyon about 40' below the surface and when the wind blows sand around on the surface it rains down on you and the equipment.  You can cover the camera and lens with the bag when this happens and wait for the wind and sand shower to stop before continuing to shoot.

Remote Release:

With the long exposure times you will need a remote release or you can learn how to use the built in timer on your camera.  Either will work just fine.  Sometimes the biggest problem in camera shake will not be you or your tripod but other tour groups passing by and accidentally hitting your equipment. Grrrrrrrr

Lens Cleaning Brush or Cloth:

This is pretty self explanatory.  However, I would urge you to check and clean the lens between each set up for a photo.  Once you are back home or at the hotel is the last place you want to be when you realize you had a bunch of dust on your lens.  If the guides are throwing dust in the air for dramatic effect your lens will need to be cleaned often.  I use one of these, or a cloth, and an air blower to help move the dust off with as least amount of abrasion as possible.


You are in a desert.  Drink before you get thirsty.  If on the photographer's tour there will be about 3 hours from start to finish.  That is too long to go without water in this environment.  Don't ruin someone else's tour because you did not take care of yourself!

Good Hiking Shoes:

The canyon is not that difficult to maneuver in.  However, there are places that are just one foot wide, and others that require you to scramble up or down, and there are a number of stairs.  Be prepared with good footwear.  It would be difficult to get someone out of the canyon that cannot walk due to a twisted ankle.

Brimmed Hat and Sunscreen:

The walk to the entrance of the canyon is short but completely exposed.  There is some shade in the waiting area.  In the canyon there is no need for the hat for sun exposure but if it is windy and the sand is raining down on your parade you will be glad you had something to keep that sand out of your hair, eyes, and out of the back of your shirt!  The walk back from the exit of the canyon is completely exposed and about 1/4 mile long.

Camera Backpacks:

Depending on the canyon (Upper Antelope has more space than Lower) there may not be a lot of room for maneuvering.  The backpacks just get in the way.  You will want to take it off and set it down so you can get the composition you want.  Just don't take it with you!  If you are not going to change lenses in the canyon then no need to have two or three in the pack.

On one of the photography tours of Upper Antelope Canyon a photographer set a backpack down and moved to take some shots a bit down the way.  Other tour groups are constantly passing by you when you are there.  Someone picked up the camera backpack and it was gone.  It had all those lenses and other items that she was not going to use anyway on this photo shoot.  Please leave them in the trunk if the car or in the hotel room.  I was told by the tour guide that thefts of this nature were very unusual.

Long Exposure Noise Reduction and Low ISO Settings:

I have shot the canyon using both a high (800 to 3200) ISO setting and low (64 to 100) ISO settings.  I always use Long Exposure Noise Reduction Settings as the exposures can get long and you don't want to be fooling around with that setting when you could be taking photos.  Yes, it makes taking a photo twice as long but the clean files you will get are worth the wait.  I also always shoot in RAW format.

The lower the ISO setting the longer the shutter is going to stay open.  This does not seem like a big deal.  However, if there is dust in the air or the guide is putting dust in the air to accentuate a light beam, then a longer exposure is going to capture more of the reflected light from the dust that is in the beam of light.  If you use a higher ISO then the shutter speed is faster and the camera has less time to "collect" the light reflected from the dust in the light beam.  It can make the difference between a light beam that is strong and spectacular and one that is dim and wimpy.

In areas where you are not trying to capture a light beam with dust in it, then it does not really matter.  Of course, you will have a more noisy image the higher you go with the ISO.  Correcting for noise in the final image is not an easy task.  The walls are sandstone and therefore have a texture.  If you over correct for the noise you will lose a lot of the texture of the stone.  It is a balancing act!

Extra Batteries and extra memory cards are recommended.  Know your equipment before you go and you will have a much better experience.  Your photos will be better and you will not feel stressed to get the photo and not hold up the rest of the group.

Turn Around - A LOT:

You have no idea how many times you will turn around and see a beautiful shot behind you.  After passing around every bend in the canyon, turn around and look behind you.  Do this a LOT as it will be very rewarding!

Commercial Photography Permits:

A word about Commercial Permits for shooting in the canyons.  If you plan to sell for commercial gain the photos you take in the canyons a Commercial Photography or Filming Permit issued by the Navajo Nation is required.  Can you do this without the permit.  Yes.  Is it right? No.  Please don't give the photography industry a bad representation/reputation by breaking the rules.  You should apply for a permit a couple of months before you go, or you should plan to spend a couple of days (2-4) getting the permit once you arrive in Page, AZ.  The process can be frustrating but be patient.  The permits generally only allow you to shoot about 2 - 3 hours per day and you have to specify what canyon you will be in.  If you want to shoot multiple days and multiple canyons put them all on the same permit so you only have to do this once.  Please note that having a permit ($50) that you have paid for does not reduce the Navajo Park entrance fee ($8) and the tour fees ($50 to $85).

There is such a thing as getting a permit after the photo shoot.  It cost $200.  I secured permits once there for the shoot.  It cost me about 4 days of time and lodging alone would be more than the $200 fee for a post shoot permit.  I don't know if the post shoot permits are hard to get or not.  My guess it they are not, but I truly don't know.  If I have to do it again I may opt for the post shoot permits.

Short Rant:

I don't use PhotoShop Creative Cloud.  When PhotoShop 6 (stand alone version) ceases to function I am moving to another program to process my photographs.  I have owned PhotoShop since version 3, I believe.  Before PhotoShop I started out with Elements at version 3 also.  I have purchased every upgrade, only to now be told that I have to subscribe to an endless rental fee for processing my photography.  As a photographer I would love to be able to hold my clients hostage to a monthly fee in case they needed some photography done.  I don't have that luxury, and believe they would laugh at me if I tried it.  I urge Adobe to reconsider this business model.

Hope some of this helps for anyone going to the canyons.  Have fun and be safe!

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