I just came back from a pretty epic trip through some of America’s finest national parks. I’ll write about the entire trip soon, but today I want to share what I’ve learned photographing the Antelope Canyons in Page, Arizona. You’ve probably heard of Antelope Canyon and seen at least some of millions of beautiful photos on Instagram or elsewhere online. For me, it was the second time I had the privilege to see this amazing place and the first time to do so as a photographer.
Lower vs Upper Antelope Canyon
There are TWO canyons called Antelope – Lower Antelope Canyon and Upper Antelope Canyon. Both are worth visiting and it’s easy to see both in just half a day or so. Lower Antelope Canyon is V-shaped (wide at the top and narrow at the bottom) and you’ll access it via ladders (more like stairs) going down into the canyon. Upper Antelope Canyon is narrower at the top (A-shaped) and much wider at the bottom, making it easier to access and navigate. Another difference is that you’ll need to take a short walk from the parking lot to see the lower canyon while the tour operators will transport you with pickup trucks to the entrance of the upper canyon.
The time of your visit matters as the sun moves – you’ll never have the same experience seeing a canyon at different times of the day. If you want to see those famous light beams in the upper canyon, you’ll need to book a tour around noon in summer. In the lower canyon, the time of your visit is less critical (the tour operators say that any time of the day is good).
How to Visit Antelope Canyon
It’s easy for almost everybody to visit both canyons. Contrary to other slot canyons there are no special skills needed to experience the beauty of Antelope. That said, there are some things you should be aware of before starting your trip. Most importantly: It’s impossible to visit the canyons without a guide. You have to book a guided tour to access both canyons. There are two tour operators at Lower Antelope Canyon and several vendors at Upper Antelope Canyon to choose from. I booked Ken’s Tour for the lower canyon and a tour from Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours for the upper canyon and was very happy with both of them.
Upon booking, you’ll receive an e-mail from the tour operator with helpful information regarding your upcoming visit. Some good tips are:
- There are no bags or backpacks allowed on the tour. You can only bring a bottle of water and your camera.
- It’s a good idea to wear comfortable, sturdy running shoes or hiking boots – especially in the lower canyon.
- Unless you booked a photography tour (more on this later), it’s not allowed to bring a tripod or any other camera gear.
- Both canyons are located on Navajo Nation tribal land and you’ll have to pay a one-time fee of $8 in addition to the tour price. If you booked multiple tours, show the receipt for the first tour to get that fee waived for the next one.
- Book early to secure your spot! The tours sell out fast and often weeks or months in advance.
- Both canyons are very busy – don’t expect to be alone.
The two tour operators at Lower Antelope Canyon do NOT offer dedicated tours for photographers. Of course, you are allowed to take photos, but you’ll have to leave your tripod behind. Since you can’t stabilize your camera, you’ll have to use higher ISO values to keep the shutter speeds low. This is not a big deal, however, as the lower canyon allows more light to come in compared to the darker upper canyon. The big crowds are also not a huge issue since your subjects will mostly be above the people’s heads. Finally, create exposure brackets to tackle the high dynamic range scenes you’ll encounter.
At Upper Antelope Canyon, several of the tour providers offer more expensive tours designed for photographers. On such tours, the groups are smaller than usual (I was with 5 other photographers) and you’re allowed to bring a tripod (which is a huge advantage). Also, the guides are trained to help you taking pictures you wouldn’t be able to take on a “normal” tour. Here’s what you can expect from the photography tour guides:
- ISO, Aperture, and Shutter Speed suggestions for every scene
- Composition tips and help with tripod setup
- Giving you enough time for long exposures
- Leading you to the best spots for great photos
- Blocking other tours (so you can take photos without other people in the picture)
- Background information about the canyon and the Navajo Nation
I was very happy with our tour guide and think he did a fantastic job. He seemed to be a good photographer himself and I appreciated him taking some photos of me and my wife at the end of the tour. In my opinion, the photography tour is an investment well worth the money.
Upper Antelope Canyon Photography Tips
Since you can bring a tripod to the Upper Antelope Canyon photography tours, shutter speed is not a critical factor anymore and you can (and should) shoot with the lowest ISO available. This is very important as it is darker in the upper canyon compared to the lower canyon. The guides generally suggest shooting in full manual mode, but I took my photos in aperture mode since I’m more familiar with it. You’ll have a bit of time to experiment with different settings on site, but you should know your gear well and I’d recommend having a plan before you enter the canyon.
With my Olympus OM-D E-M5II, these settings were my starting point:
- ISO: 200 (lowest native ISO on my camera)
- Aperture: most often around f8
- Shutter Speed: auto (aperture mode)
- Focal length: 12mm (widest possible)
The biggest lesson I learned was to bring the widest and fastest lens you own – you’ll shoot in a narrow, rather dark canyon after all. I brought my 12-40mm (24-80mm full-frame equivalent) pro lens and it wasn’t wide enough for most scenes. If I ever had the chance to go back, I would definitely take an ultra wide angle lens. A zoom lens is a good choice. Don’t take more than one lens as you won’t have enough time to switch. And it’s not a good idea to change lenses in a canyon full of sand anyways.
Update Dec 11, 2019: Unfortunately, the photography tours in the Upper Antelope Canyon will be discontinued from 2020 and beyond as communicated by the Navajo Nation Parks and Recreation organization today.