After seeing some gorgeous photos of Arizona’s Antelope Canyon, I knew it must be included on my photography bucket list. What I didn’t realize is that it’s also a very challenging place to photograph. I went to the slot canyon thinking that my research had fully prepared me to come away with fantastic pictures. I was wrong. Here are some things that you must know before trying to get great photographs in Antelope Canyon.
1) Book a Photography Tour
Because I had my family with me, we took a regular tour that doesn’t allow camera bags or tripods. Tripods are crucial for getting low ISO photos of the canyon that aren’t blurry. If you’re serious about your images, book a photography tour, and do it well in advance since they can fill up quickly.
2) Dust and Sand are Everywhere
Most tour companies take you to the canyon via an open-air Jeep or pickup-type vehicle. Normally this would be fine, but in this case the trip to the canyon is via a bumpy dirt/sand road that takes about 15 minutes and will cover you in dust. Our guide told us to cover up all of our camera gear, and he wasn’t wrong.
3) The Canyon is Darker Than You Think
The moment I set foot in the slot canyon, I knew it was going to be a real challenge without a tripod. I set my camera for ISO bracketing that would take ISO 800-1600-3200 photos, and it was still a challenge to capture a sharp image. Normally you would want an aperture of f/11 or so, but I was forced to go with an f/4 to get the proper exposure and a non-blurry photo.
4) Do Not Change Lenses in the Canyon
Did I mention sand? (See #2.) Pick a wide angle lens and keep it on your camera for the whole tour. If you want more flexibility, then take two camera bodies with different lenses. I used my Fuji X-T10 crop sensor body with a Rokinon 12mm f/2 lens and thought it was the perfect lens. It is a manual focus lens, but I didn’t really have any issues with focusing.
5) The Dynamic Range in the Canyon is Extreme
I know I said it’s darker than you think, and it is, but the bright sun piercing through the slot canyon ceiling means you have extreme brightness and extreme shadows which are always fun when trying to get a good photograph. This, of course, is also what makes the place magical. The key is to avoid photographing the sky and only photograph the areas where the sun is shining on the walls. It’s harder than it sounds.
6) Listen to Your Guide
Even though we were on a non-photography tour, our guide still showed us all of the great photo spots and even told us the best ways to get great pictures. He mostly catered to the iPhone crowd, but he knew his stuff inside and out.
7) Don’t Underestimate the Camera on Your Phone
I hate to say it, but I think that my wife’s iPhone 7 took some of the best photographs of the canyon during our tour. If you have one of the latest generations of smart phone, don’t be afraid to use it. Just turn off the flash and use the “chrome” filter.
8) The Canyon Can Be Crowded
You will have tour groups in front of and behind you, and they will only give you a few moments at each of the really great spots to capture the photos that you want. One of the reasons that the photo tours are better for photographers is that they stay at each of the key locations longer. That being said, after our official tour, we had to retrace our steps to get out of the canyon. Our guide gave us 20 minutes by ourselves to meander back toward the entrance, which meant some sections were totally deserted, and there was time to catch a few more photos. (We visited in March, so our definition of “crowded” may be a little skewed compared to July. I’m not sure they will let you do this during peak season.)
9) Time of Year, Time of Day, and Type of Day Matter
The best time to go is when the sun is directly overhead and shining light rays vertically down the slot in the canyon. This is when you’ll see those piercing shafts of sunlight that may or may not point the way to the Lost Ark of the Covenant. This is usually between 10:30 a.m. and 12:30 p.m., starting in late March and continuing until early October. It stands to reason that you also need a clear, sunny day so that you actually have sun rays. This can be hard to predict when booking a tour so far in advance, but with an average of 266 sunny days per year in Page, you have a pretty good chance. We went on one of those sunny days, but our tour arrived around 2:00 p.m. and it was mid-March, so we never saw the sunbeams. We did have great colors, though.
10) BONUS ITEM: Horseshoe Bend
While you are in Page, you should try to visit Horseshoe Bend in the nearby Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. It’s a u-shaped bend in the Colorado River that’s one of those iconic shots that’s on most people’s photo bucket lists. It’s also only a few minutes outside of town.
My whole family thoroughly enjoyed Antelope Canyon, and it became the surprise hit of the vacation. We used Antelope Canyon Tours Inc. and could not have been happier with their outfit. They offer sightseeing and photography tours of the Upper Canyon and run a pretty tight ship. (Tours of nearby Lower Antelope Canyon can be booked through other operators. This canyon requires climbing on metal stair-ladders and is more popular with serious photographers than casual sightseers.)
To see where else we went on our trip, read this post about 5 Things to Do at the Grand Canyon and this one about the Top 5 Family Hikes in Zion National Park.
Here are some links to my favorite photography gear:
Please leave me a comment below about your favorite travel gear, or if you’d like to know more about mine.