Words and photos by Coalatree Ambassador Peter Coskun
Having lived in the southwest for the better part of my life, there are a few scenes that are almost synonymous with the desert. One such scene is that of Antelope Canyon, the most popular slot canyon on earth. I remember before even picking up a camera that I would see endless images of this place. Swirling sandstone walls with deep red hues and beams of light often resembling that of a ghost. I would see these images so much that I told myself if I ever had a camera, why bother to even try and photograph it?
Then in 2011 a weekend opened up to see this place. It was cloudy, and there was a chance of rain. I knew that if there was any chance of extremely poor weather that the guides would tell us not to go, or they would cancel the tour in general. Keep in mind, I had no idea how to really photograph these canyons or knew how they got that amazing glow inside of them. When we walked through I was rather disappointed. I wasn't seeing those vibrant reds and oranges or light beams anywhere. I thought maybe they had all been photoshopped or something. I left the canyon feeling as if I got ripped off, but knowing there were other canyons nearby, I did my research and returned to another canyon a year later.
Over the years I have visited about a dozen different slot canyons in Arizona and Utah and still look for new ones to venture into and photograph. I learned more about what it was that it took to get that rich glowing light I had been after, and even more than the light, was finding shapes, patterns, and layers of stone.
In order to take full advantage of slot canyon light, you need to have a very sunny day and absolutely no chance of rain anywhere nearby. Flash flooding can occur even if it is sunny where you are, so be sure to check the weather beyond your intended destination. Every canyon I have entered shows signs of recent flooding with debris jammed between the narrow walls, sometimes more than 20 feet above your head. It can get serious and deadly in there fast. You should also be aware of your physical abilities. Some canyons have very flat sandy floors that make access very easy while others require ladders, rappels, or having to chimney or stem. Some canyons are long, really really long, while others are just a few hundred yards at best.
My favorite times to photograph in the canyons are during the fall and spring months. Summers are too hot and the potential for flash floods are far greater. Mid spring brings wonderful light beams and more glowing sandstone walls while in the fall, the lower angle of the sun brings more of a variety of color to the stone with the light. One of the things I learned early on was that in order to create those light beams, or at least very dense beams resembling ghostly figures, was to toss sand into the light and then release the shutter. One thing to take note of while inside these canyons is they can be very dusty and sandy. I would advise using one lens to avoid switching and potentially getting sand inside your camera. A 24-70mm or equivalent lens is a pretty good range to explore wide scenes as well as more intimate zoomed in scenes.
Since you will be using longer exposures, it is important to have your tripod with you to keep the camera stable during each shot. Other items you may want to keep handy for shooting in slot canyons are a rocket blower, a rain jacket for the camera (if it happens to be windy), and of course extra batteries and memory cards. In some canyons, especially more popular ones like lower antelope canyon no longer allow you to bring a tripod along. If you are doing a guided tour make sure you know if tripods are allowed, or if you need to upgrade to a photographers tour. This will usually allow you to bring your tripod and give you a little more time in the canyon, but they are also much more expensive.
There are many canyons in the southwest that do not need guides for, but you have to do some research to find them. The possibilities are endless in terms of finding a canyon to photograph as well as being creative. Remember to avoid cloudy days or days where there is inclement weather and be sure to know your physical capabilities. Nothing would be worse than getting stuck in a canyon and hoping someone comes along and finds you. It has happened to a number of people before, don't let it happen to you.