I certainly don’t want to presume to hold myself up as the definitive expert in shooting Antelope Canyon but I wouldn’t mind sharing my thoughts and welcome feedback from anyone who has shot there and has similar or dissimilar impressions.
Anyone who has been to Antelope Canyon in northern Arizona just outside Page knows there are two canyons – Upper and Lower. They are about five miles apart. The two canyons are distinctly different. Let’s start with Upper.
Upper Antelope is very narrow at the top and wider at the bottom. This has a profound effect on the light. Early and late in the day there will be practically no light on the canyon floor. So the hours before and after noon are the best times to shoot, say, from 10:00 to 2:00. You can maybe push this by an hour on either end. Time of year will also have an effect as the noontime sun will be higher in the sky in summer and lower in winter. I’ve only shot there six weeks either side of winter solstice so I really can’t say what summer light will be like.
Lower Antelope Canyon is just the opposite of Upper. It is very wide at the top and narrow at the bottom. In some places it is so narrow you have to turn sideways to squeeze through. In general there is more light reaching the canyon floor in Lower than there is in Upper. The top half of Lower (Upper Lower) is situated such that the best light is in the morning. You can get an early start there (Keny, your guide, arrives at 9:00). The bottom half (Lower Lower) bends towards the west where the best light is in the afternoon.
A good plan for a full day of shooting is to shoot Upper Lower in morning, then Upper at mid-day, then Lower Lower in the afternoon. It’s hard to imagine a better day than that.
Compositions within the canyons vary from grand views to small intimate settings. The wonderful thing about both canyons is the breadth of emotions you can communicate with a combination of composition and light. And of course, the light changes by the minute. If something strikes you, shoot it right away because in five minutes it could well be gone.
In the choice of lenses, you may find that there are occasions where a longer lense is what you’ll want. But most of the time the shorter focal lengths are probably better – for a couple of reasons. If you’re going for sharp focus throughout the image, one of the primary reasons will be depth of field. Many of the compositions will have some elements that are quite close and others that are quite far away, something that is more easily handled by the wide angle lenses. You won’t necessarily need a fast lens because you’ll be stopped down to f/11 or f/16, again to maximize depth of field. On the other hand, if you’re shooting hand held you’ll want the fastest lens you have and will settle for images that will be soft in places.
The biggest challenge in shooting these magnificent slot canyons is the light. The dynamic range can be extreme. The canyon floors can be extremely dark, especially Upper, while the walls above are bathed in direct sunlight. Dynamic range in Upper Antelope Canyon.
All the techniques you have to compress dynamic range can be applied. You can use graduated neutral density filters. Your 2 stop GND filter probably won’t be enough; 3 stops will be minimum. If you’re shooting film, with powerful ND filtration you will probably be journeying well into the land of reciprocity failure because of the length of the exposure. If you’re shooting digital you’ll end up with the sparkles that come from long exposures.
You can also use HDR. Bracket by two stops and don’t be surprised if it takes five or more exposures to capture the entire range. Of course, you’re going to want to have your camera set up on a tripod. So if you’re doing HDR and want to use a low ISO (100 or 200), you may well end up with the long exposures taking a couple of minutes. It may take 10 or 15 minutes to set up, compose your shot and take five exposures, especially if the long exposure if four minutes. The challenge you’ll face will be tourists coming through before you finish your series of exposures. So try to set up off to the side so they don’t kick your tripod legs when they shuffle by in the dark. HDR image of Lower Antelope Canyon.
One thing to look for with regards to light is the beautiful purples you’ll see on many of the walls that are not directly illuminated by the sun. This is because the blue sky is the source of illumination. It’s a subtle effect that can be enhanced in post processing by bumping the blue saturation a bit. Upper Antelope Canyon with purple walls.
You need a guide to enter both canyons. In Lower Antelope, your guide will be Ken’s Tours (928) 606-2168. In Upper Antelope there are several to choose from. I’ve used Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours (928) 698-3384 and recommend them very highly.
The last thing to keep in mind when shooting these wonderful canyons is that you are in a place that is no less sacred than Notre Dame or other wonderful cathedrals of Europe. It’s not only the Dené that hold them to be sacred but many of us do too. So, as you would not desecrate a cathedral, Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons deserve the same respect and love.