In 2018 I took a three week solo tour around parts of the south west USA. Just me, a hire car, and some cameras. High on my list of places to see were some slot canyons in Arizona. Page is a town on Highway 89, not far from the Utah border and is conveniently located between Zion National Park and the Grand Canyon. The town provides access to several companies that specialise in slot canyon tours. I booked accommodation through AirBNB, just a short walk from the town center.
A mistake I made was to only book two nights, I really should have stayed longer. There are so many amazing places to photograph in this area and I found I had nowhere near enough time.
The slot canyons are located on private Navajo land. You can only visit by booking a tour with an authorised tour company. I decided to book with a company called Adventurous Antelope Canyon Tours as they offered a range of tours specifically for photographers. I chose a tour that included the famous Antelope Canyon and a smaller, private canyon called Rattlesnake.
One note of warning, the town of Page operates on a different time zone to the Navajo Nation during daylight savings time. I discovered this when I turned up an hour early, not a big deal.
The departure point is at a small office just off the highway, it's in the middle of nowhere but not difficult to find. When you check in you have to show your camera equipment. They won't let you on the photography tour without a proper camera and tripod. I took my D800 and 16-35 f/4 lens so any photos you see on this site were taken on digital. Unfortunately I had to leave my film gear in the car. You are not permitted to take a bag of any kind, not even a bum bag or water bag, into the canyons. That made it completely impractical to use my 4x5 set up. I was aware of this beforehand and the main reason the D800 came on the trip. Tripods/monopods may only be taken if you are on a photography tour.
Eventually you are called up to meet your tour group, the group consisted of me, an American couple, and our Navajo guide, Tony. We loaded into a 4WD and set off on the short trip to Antelope Canyon.
UPPER ANTELOPE CANYON
Upper Antelope Canyon is probably the most well known of the slot canyons in the area. It's relatively big, at about 400m long, it's easy to access, and it is spectacular.
The downside of the canyon is its popularity, that place is crowded with people, all clamouring over each other to try and get the perfect selfie.
Being on a photography tour helped a lot. Our guide kept people out of our shots and made sure we had space to operate. The other couple on the tour were not experienced photographers and Tony, the guide, gave them plenty of help with camera settings and the like. I found that exposures of around two to four seconds at f/16 and ISO 50 gave good results.
Inside the canyon the temperature is quite a bit lower than outside, it's darker than it appears in the photos, and the colours of the stones are not quite as vibrant to the naked eye. It's also dusty and dirty. You will come out covered in dust and sand and so will your equipment.
The constraints of being in a crowded, tight space meant making compromises. There was no opportunity to explore and find your own compositions at any time. Basically the guide told you where to place your tripod and where to point your camera. Just about every photo was prescribed which obviously means that everyone that has ever been on the tour would have very similar photos. It was also quite rushed. We had a few minutes at each spot to make the shot and then herded off to the next location.
I hope I'm not making it sound worse than it was. Given the circumstances there really is no other way the tour could operate. I'm grateful to have been able to make the images that I did and would do it again tomorrow if I could.
The Antelope Canyon section was crowded and rushed. Rattlesnake Canyon was just the opposite. Tours to this canyon are exclusive to this particular operator and so we were the only four people in there. That would soon become three as Tony left us to ourselves while he went for a nap outside.
The canyon itself is much smaller and less spectacular than Antelope but no less beautiful and every bit as interesting. It is a lot tighter inside and you need to be prepared to climb over rocks and squeeze through some narrow passages. You also need to climb a ladder to get out.
I actually enjoyed my time in Rattlesnake more than Antelope. We had plenty of time and the freedom to move around and find compositions as we liked.
The entire area around Page is full of interesting photography locations, such as Horseshoe Bend, the Vermilion Cliffs, Lake Powell, and the Toadstool Hoodoos. There are also many other slot canyons.
I really wish I had allocated more time to seeing this area but I say the same thing about most of the places I visited on my trip. Next time.