Photographing Arizona’s Slot Canyons

You’ve most likely seen an image of Antelope Canyon at some point in your lifetime. The scene is unforgettable. Deep in the Arizona desert, a narrow slot canyon, famous for it’s eerily beautiful beams of light shining down from the heavens that illuminate the red sandstone a fiery red. The canyon is a photographer’s paradise, but alas, filled with challenges galore. Mike Mezuel II wrote this article in hopes that you can take away a few tips on how to walk away with some stunning shots of what surely is a remarkable place.

“Monument Valley” located in Upper Antelope Canyon.

It’s not what it seems…
Okay, before we get serious here, I need to break your heart. Antelope Canyon is not what it seems, and by that I mean this. This serenity, the peacefulness, the isolation, the quiet…all those feelings that are portrayed in a still image…gone, out the window. Brace yourselves for selfie sticks, deafening chatter, tour groups galore, and pure frustration. The truth behind Antelope Canyon is that it is on private Indian Territory, and the tribes have discovered that this location is a pot of gold. In order to gain access to the any of the slot canyons, you must book a tour with a Navajo guide. Tours run year round and from sunrise to sunset. The canyons, which are really only a couple hundred feet long, become cramped with traffic jams of people. In order to bring a tripod into the canyon, you have to book a photography tour. Now just because you have booked yourself a special, super cool photography tour, doesn’t mean you are going to score a Peter Lik billion dollar shot. All this guarantees you is access to the canyon with your tripod. Most guides though are nice enough to understand that you want your unicorn shot, so they will block off areas of interest to give you time (about 2 minutes) to create your image.

The lines and shapes carved into the sandstone are dazzling.

A beam of light shines down through a crack above in Upper Antelope Canyon in Page, Arizona.

Don’t get focused on the summer.
If being restricted to a couple minute window while hundreds of other people wait to get past you doesn’t sound appealing, check out the canyons in the winter. Yes, the summer months are when you will get the crazy beams of light shining into the canyon, but are you really going to get a shot that hasn’t been captured before? The crowds in the summer are ridiculous to say the least. Easily 200-300 people all fighting for space in the canyon. During winter months, crowds can be small enough so that you can hear a pin drop in the canyon. If the light beams are a must for you though, make sure you are in the canyon for around the noon time frame. Those are when the strongest beams occur.

A sand fall in Upper Antelope Canyon.

Pay attention to the details.
Take away the light beams in the canyon and what do you have? Most people would say a boring canyon. I beg to differ. The colors of the Navajo sandstone are brilliant. They change from a cool purple to blue then to orange and red as the day progresses. The lines and shapes carved into the sandstone are dazzling. The flash flood waters that created the canyon created some incredible shapes. From the “Indian Face” to “The Wave” to “The Bear’s Face”…there are so many details to photograph. It’s also a leading lines playground. Look up. Look down. You’ll be amazed at what you can find.

Some of the areas you will want to shoot are so tight that you cannot set up your tripod with all three legs on the ground

The Fire Wave in Lower Antelope Canyon.

Use your tripod.
Whether you decide to go during summer or winter, you’re going to need a tripod down in the canyon. Fact of the matter is, it’s pretty darn dark. If you want to capture the light beams or really bring out the vibrant colors of the canyon, you’ll need a long exposure. I also suggest utilizing a tripod so you can focus stack your images. Sometimes you are so close to a wall to bring out the exquisite sandstone lines, that even a large depth of field won’t give you the sharpness throughout your image that you desire. Having a tripod-ed shot will allow you to focus stack and obtain that perfect, tack sharp image you want.

Some of the areas you will want to shoot are so tight that you cannot set up your tripod with all three legs on the ground and this is where having a set of Induro sticks rocks. My GIT304 allows me to extend the legs out flat which is lifesaver in tight spots like slot canyons. For some of my images, I actually have my tripod set up with one leg on the ground, and two flat pressed up against the canyon wall.

Light works its way down inside the narrows of Lower Antelope Canyon.

While I may have crushed your hopes and dreams about finding pure isolation and capturing an empty Antelope Canyon, don’t let it detour you from experiencing the beauty of the canyon. The photography tour is worth every penny you pay for it and you will still walk away with stunning images. There are plenty of photos to be had and sometimes the best image you can take is the one with your eyes.

A small beam of light illuminates Lower Antelope Canyon.

Mike Mezuel II’s Featured Gear

Induro GIT304 Grand Series Stealth Carbon Fiber Tripod