The stunningly colorful rock formations at Antelope Canyon in Arizona are among the most popular tourist destinations in the world. But how do you photograph these natural wonders? We’ve got some tips for you!

Plan Ahead

Like many of the world’s natural wonders, and especially those in the United States, recent years have led to a situation where tourism has taken over. Commercialism is rampant, and this location is as much an attraction as it is a natural wonder. The crowds in canyons can be a bit overwhelming and combined with the narrow confines; the experience is a bit claustrophobic.

Located on private Navajo land, and subject to flash floods, visiting Antelope Canyon requires a bit of preplanning. The only way to access the canyons is by booking a guided tour. However, these tours are well worth the investment.

Antelope Canyon-Photo by Vlad Chețan
Antelope Canyon-Photo by Vlad Chețan

Choose the Right Time of Day

You need to choose the right time of day to shoot. If you’re shooting during the middle of the day, there will be too much light bouncing off the canyon walls. This makes it difficult to see details in the shadows. On the other hand, if you’re shooting in low light, you’ll miss out on the amazing colors and shapes of the rocks. Try and schedule your visit on a bright and sunny day to take advantage of the color richness and magical light beams. Note: The upper canyon has the most dramatic light beams.

Antelope Canyon Light Shafts-Photo by hikersbay
Antelope Canyon Light Shafts-Photo by hikersbay

Be Patient

Booking a photographer tour is essential to ensure that you can capture photos free of crowds, although your time is limited. These tours cost a bit more, but general admission will result in a situation where it is almost impossible to capture a scene devoid of people.

Anticipate no more than 120 seconds to compose and capture your masterpiece. So don’t expect to have time to carefully prepare and compose your scene on a tripod. Photography is mass-produced in Antelope Canyon. You are just one of the thousands of visiting photographers who the guides will place at the most common and photogenic locations. You will be given a brief audience with natural beauty, and then be shuffled along. It’s not personal; it’s efficient.

Sand Waterfall in Antelope Canyon-Photo by Alan Huett
Sand Waterfall in Antelope Canyon-Photo by Alan Huett

Why It’s Worth It

Creatively this experience can be stifling and maybe even lead to some cynicism. The noise, chaos, and knowledge that folks to your left and right are taking the same shot from the same spot can crush your creativity. But, when you get back to your hotel room and process your photos, that will change.

Let’s be frank; there’s a reason why this place is one of the most photographed in the world. The pictures you will take will be stunning — some of the best you’ve ever produced. For us, it is the experience following the shoot that makes it all worth it. In the quiet moment back at the hotel, carefully pick through new treasures and apply your first interpretations of tone and color. This slice of time is where creativity and satisfaction meet, flooding a creative soul with inspiration. It is the reason why we return to Antelope Canyon, despite its rampant commercialism. The pictures are just worth it.

Antelope Canyon Colors-Photo by @ S@ndrine
Antelope Canyon Colors-Photo by @ S@ndrine

Visiting Antelope Canyon

Situated in a photographer’s mecca, Antelope Canyon is close to other famous photography spots, including Horseshoe Bend, Lake Powell, and many more slot canyons. Booking a few days in Page, Arizona, to capture the local natural beauty will be essential, but understand that your experience and the photography will be in a state of contrast. On the one hand, you will capture serene, peaceful natural beauty, but you’ll do it while surrounded by crowds of tourists.

We usually recommend visiting popular destinations like this in the off-season. But in this case, you pretty much have to visit in the summer months (May to August). Despite the crowds at this time of year, it is the only time that the famous shafts of light make their way to the canyon floors. Tours do get booked up this time of year, and you may share the canyon with hundreds of other people. All the more reason to invest in the photographer’s tours. Despite the challenges that shooting with so many people will present, the light is worth it.

There are multiple slot canyons in the region, and there are two Antelope Canyons: upper and lower. Generally speaking, the upper canyon is more popular with visitors, but both offer similar stunning imagery opportunities. The light shafts arguably are a bit better in the upper canyon, but not essential to getting good photos. Be sure to visit the other nearby slot canyons like Buckskin Canyon which offer smaller crowds and different photographic opportunities.

Some Final Photography Tips

Here are a few essential pointers for photographers who will be visiting Antelope Canyon:

  • If you want to sell your images of Antelope Canyon or derive income in any way, you must contact the Navajo Nation Film Office before your shoot. There will be a filming permit fee, but it is not unreasonable, and the process is relatively simple.
  • If you intend to bring a tripod, and you should, you must book a Photographer Tour. These tours also offer more time and are guided by knowledgeable photographer guides.
  • Always look up. Unusual and magnificent compositions are often above your head.
  • Bring the best camera and lens combination you own. Don’t plan on changing lenses as dust and short time make this a bad idea; having a variable zoom lens that offers wide angles will be essential. Anything from 16-35 mm on a full-frame sensor or equivalent will be crucial.
  • Do not change your lens in the canyon. Just don’t.
  • Because of the dust mentioned above, camera protection is a good idea. Even a self-made plastic shooting bag is better than nothing. Dust blowers or brushes to clean your lens are also essential. Do not bring micro-fibre cloths to wipe the lens, the sand will scratch them.

Technical Considerations

Low light performance trumps megapixels in this shooting situation, and plan to shoot long exposures at mid to high apertures. These longer exposures will capture more detail and burn in the soft textures needed for your shot.

We could debate the merits of a polarizer when shooting here, and some photographers will swear by them. But the loss of light, in our opinion, means we leave it in the bag. Instead, a UV filter will help protect the lens, and plant to work the image in post to add contrast and richness.

Know your gear well to ensure you make the most of the time you have to shoot. This type of shoot is not the time to learn photography. You will feel time pressure and need to be confident in your abilities to get in and get out.

Expect to be on your knees a lot. We don’t necessarily recommend knee pads but wear clothing that is comfortable to move around in when shooting from standing and kneeling positions. You will get dirty.

When you are done and back at the hotel, as you transfer your shots, be sure to clean your equipment. A can of air duster will be your best friend.

Antelope Canyon Long Exposure-Photo by Chase Lindberg
Antelope Canyon Long Exposure-Photo by Chase Lindberg