“Rain comes into this canyon like a whirlpool. Think about it like sandpaper. The sand mixes with water whirling through the canyon and sculpts the walls.”
(Leonard Nez, Navajo tour guide)
While everyone seems to remember that Arizona is the Grand Canyon state, a trip there wouldn’t be complete without seeing the amazing Antelope Canyon. This slot canyon has gained major popularity thanks to the social media and to some amazing images that have gone viral. One of the most famous, shot by Peter Lik, “Phantom“, has been sold for $6.5 million: unbelievable, right? You might have also seen it on Planet Earth II, the BBC series, that featured it in Episode 4.
This millennia old slot canyon form a dark labyrinth illuminated by tunnels of sunlight from above… and you can catch the best light only for a very few hours per day.
Let’s discover the secrets inside the Antelope Canyon!
Pro tip: Bring some water with you and don’t forget to apply sunscreen. Inside the canyon it might be a bit chilly, even if outside it’s pretty hot, so wear a long sleeved shirt once you get in.
|Don’t just focus on the sunlight beams, look up to the ceiling and shoot away!|
The Antelope Canyon includes two sections. The Navajo name for Upper Antelope Canyon means “The place where water runs through rocks“, while the one for Lower Antelope Canyon is “spiral rock arches“. The two sections are a bit different. While the Upper Antelope offers more chances to catch the shafting sunlight beams, it’s also sometimes pretty crowded, even if the guides always make sure to let every group enjoy their tour. The Lower Antelope is narrower, steeper and less crowded. It has a wilder side to it and it’s definitely more quiet, but you won’t be able to shot the impressive photos you can get at the Upper cousin.
When we arrived to our hotel in Page, the receptionist informed us that there was the chance to get a discounted price tour with a Navajo guide. The price was definitely good and we decided to book it. Our “shuttle bus” was actually a huge and dusty jeep I associated immediately to some Indiana Jones adventure. Behind the wheel, Sam, our guide, kept on chatting with us: he was hilarious and knew so much about the Antelope Canyon… even if he scared me half to death. You see, I’m terrified by spiders and while laughing he said that the previous day he’d been to the hospital to get his antivenom shot, as a black widow had bitten him inside the canyon. When he saw that I was watching him in horror, he just shrugged, telling me that I had to be very careful to where I put my feet and to pay attention not to touch the walls. Let’s say I was extra careful for the whole tour. Because there really are black widows in there. Lots of them. We saw a careless photographer who was quietly laying against one of the pink walls… and a “huge” spider not too far away from him. Don’t ask. Any spider is huge to me, and I honestly felt the need to run away as fast as I could. It was, again, only thanks to Sam if I stayed. No matter what, he was always able to make us laugh out loud! After all, I was ready to run away, while he’d been already bitten (more than once, he stated proudly) and he was still walking the canyon barefoot. While the sand looked soft and powdery, I definitely didn’t feel the need to take my shoes off. Because… spiders.
The ride to the canyon on one of the open air trucks was awesome. Once again while the other bus was driven by an equally funny lady, Sam decided that we needed to be shaken up for a while. Before to start the engine he told us to cover our mouth and nostrils with a napkin: we soon discovered why. The run was bumpy, fast, full of sand (it took us two showers to wash it all away)…. we had SO much fun!
Pro tip: keep your camera inside your bag so make sure you won’t get sand in it during the ride on the truck.
|One of the most photographed areas inside the Antelope Canyon|
First of all, remember that there’s a good chance that your guide will help you. Sam spent the whole time explaining how to photograph the canyon, where to stand if we wanted better pictures and even shooting some for those who really weren’t able to do it themselves. The Navajo guides, as I already mentioned, do a great job at managing the groups, balancing the needs of the tourists who just want to explore and those of the photographers who are desperately looking for the best shot.
While it’s great (and I have many of those myself) to shot a sunlight shaft image,try to focus also on the light that illuminates the graceful curves and shapes of the canyon. Mother Nature did a great job at carving this beauty, remember to really look at it in stead than just taking hundreds of photos: you won’t be disappointed!
The best time to get in is around 11-12 am because the light will be just about perfect. I’ve been told that in the busiest periods there are long lines of tourists trying to book the tours around this time. We were pretty lucky because it was September and there weren’t many people, but if you really want to get in to shoot the best images and see the light playing over the pink-orangey curves inside the canyon, it’d be a great idea to get early on site, just to make sure you can get in by 11 at the latest.
|There’s a lot of dust in the air|
Pro Tip: If you want to be extra careful, you might want to bring a plastic bag for your camera. A ziplock one will be perfect to keep it safe from the dust and it can also be used for the extra pair of lenses in case you’re bringing it with you.
Many of the agencies in Page also offer specific photo tours for the Upper Antelope. They cost much more than the regular walking tours, but I don’t particularly see any reason why you should book one, unless you find a particularly great agency that you know will make sure you get all the shots you want to. But… it’s the same thing Sam did with us and I know it’s standard behaviour: if you ask, the guides will help you with your camera settings and will also make sure to take a few shots for you. I’ve read somewhere that you can only bring a tripod with you if you are going on a photo tour, but again I’ve had a different experience. We brought a smaller tripod that we could fit in our backpack, asked our guide if it was allowed inside and he was perfectly fine with it.
|This Canyon will never cease to amaze me!|
Photography tips to shoot beautiful photos inside the Antelope Canyon:
While bringing a small tripod with you is a great idea, using your flash… well you might want to avoid that. Work on your exposure and ISO to take better photos! Also try not to walk in front of someone who’s still shooting, I know you probably don’t mean it but it can be pretty rude and annoying.
Pro tip: Buy a can of compressed air at Page and use it to clean the dust and sand off your camera when you get back to your hotel.
The light filters into the canyon through narrow gaps and offers dramatic views of curves and limestone waves. The canyon will treat you with a pleasant surprise at every turn. The ceiling also hides a few “secrets”, like the corkscrew heart or the outline of Abraham Lincoln’s head. Of course it will take a bit of imagination and a guide who will point those out to you (it took me a few tries before I recognized Abe Lincoln’s “chin”) but it’s yet another fun experience offered by one of the most beautiful canyons I’ve ever seen.