Slot Canyon Country

Slot Canyon Country

One of the reasons you go to Page, Arizona as a landscape photographer is that it is centrally located to access several very accessible slot canyons in the region.  Slot canyons are formed primarily through flash flooding and severe winds, whipping through and carving deep into sandstone bedrock.  Given that water is the primary force shaping slot canyons, it is no wonder that the many forms within these slot canyons are rather fluid in appearance.

Most people who come to Page looking for slot canyons visit Upper Antelope Canyon, located on the south side of State Highway 98 near the Navajo Generating Station, a massive, three-stack coal-fired power plant.  Both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon are located on Navajo land, requiring a minor entry fee of $6 plus a guiding or usage fee.  With Upper Antelope Canyon, called Tse’ bighanilini (“the place where water runs through rocks”) by the Navajo, our guiding fee of $40 went to a family-owned Navajo guiding operation.  Our guide was Jamie, who did a great job at pointing out photo-worthy features, keeping other tourists at bay while our shutters were open, and assisting in moving our camera bags along with us.  Upper Antelope may be the more expensive of the two Antelope Canyons, but it is the most visited because it is flat and wide.  I found it to be my least favorite of the three slot canyons I visited during my trip.

Lower Antelope Canyon, called Hazdistazi (“spiral rock arches”) by the Navajo, in contrast, is entirely self-guided.  Unlike the two hour limitation for Upper Antelope Canyon, the fee for Lower Antelope Canyon (just on the other side of the highway from Upper) included four hours of time in the canyon.  (This four-hour coverage was being reduced to two hours shortly after our visit, but you could still stay longer so long as you paid an extra five dollars – well worth it.)  Lower Antelope can be challenging to maneuver in when you are carrying a tripod and camera and toting around a backpack-style camera bag on your back.  You enter the canyon through a narrow slot in the ground (as opposed to a wide, walk-in entrance at Upper Antelope) and then make your way down into the canyon through a series of metal ladders and steps, all of which are rather steep.  Almost immediately, though, I was struck by how different and more diverse the compositions were in Lower Antelope.  I ended up spending over three hours in the canyon, limited only by how the light had become rather unfavorable, as it was approximately 12:30 when I left the canyon.  Early morning and late afternoon are the best times to visit the canyon.

My third visit, and second favorite canyon while in Page, was to Waterholes Canyon, accessible from a trail starting at mile marker 538 on Highway 89.  I had visited there the last time I was in Page in October 2001 with my friend Andrew VonBank.  My memories from that first visit were that while it was a cool hike into the canyon, there was not much to photograph.  My ability to find so many more compositions during this visit is a testament to how much I have grown as a photographer in the intervening 9 1/2 years.  Like Lower Antelope Canyon, the best time to visit Waterholes is early in the morning.  I started my hike into the canyon at 7:00 a.m.

The reason for the early morning or late afternoon visit to these canyons is the time of year and the angle of the sun.  What makes slot canyon photography successful is when you have direct sunlight that is shining against one wall, and reflecting light onto another.  You do not want to photograph any compositions that include the sky, as the exposures are long in the canyon, sometimes as long as thirty seconds.  Instead, you want to compose and crop in-camera in such a way that you are seeing both shaded and reflected light areas, thus providing the contrast of cool and warm tones.  Sunny skies mean clear skies and the deep shade of blue that comes with them.  That blue reflects in the shaded areas of the canyon, providing blue and purple hues.  The reflected light is always a warm gold or reddish-orange.

To get the long exposures necessary to be successful, select an ISO no greater than 100, set your aperture to f/22 or greater, and adjust exposure compensation in such a way to avoid clipping at the highlights or shadows.  If you are not getting long enough exposures, add a polarizing filter or neutral density filter to slow down your shutter even more.

All of these images are available in my Newest Images gallery.

Leave a Reply