I’ve recently read a number of articles of different photographers’ experiences at Upper Antelope Canyon, so I thought it would be interesting to contrast those with my recent visit to Lower Antelope Canyon, whilst I was travelling around the Western U.S. States a little while back.
Antelope Canyon was on my must visit list for some time and despite knowing I’d end up with similar (if not identical) shots to thousands of others before me, it still remained a spot that I simply needed to get in front of my camera.
With a very tight schedule though, I had little choice over the time to visit the site, as wI had a 7 hour drive ahead of me afterwards. That said, I tried my best to get there as close to midday as possible, to have the best chance of finding light shafts in the canyon (of which there are a few, albeit very small, ones) to create the archetypal ‘raining sand’ shots that everyone wants.
What to expect
As you arrive at the Lower Canyon, you’ll have a choice of two separate tour companies, Ken’s Tours or Dixie Eillis’. It’s important to note that only Ken’s tours offer a standalone Photography option (for $47) but both offer ‘sightseeing’ tours (both around $30). I unfortunately had the decision of which type of tour I would be going on made for me, as I simply didn’t have time for the over two hour photography option. I know, I know… It’s crazy that I’d come all this way to not go on the tour specifically made for what I was there for but that’s what happens when a Brit tries to fit in 2500 miles of driving and numerous photographic stops in 4 days! Given that I was only going ‘sightseeing’ then, I opted for Dixie Ellis’, as it was recommended to me by the front desk staff at the hotel when I checked out.
Knowing that I wouldn’t be partaking in a photography tour though, I knew that I’d be joined on the walk by a group of people who may not necessarily be photographically minded and that I’d have my work cut out to set up and grab my shots before an unwitting tourist wandered across our scene. Upon my arrival though, I found a much larger group of people waiting around than I’d anticipated and so I started to wonder if I’d be able to get any shots at all.
After queuing up and paying my dues, I was given a tour time, which meant I had only around a ten minute wait, and was told to listen out in the waiting area. I was also told in no uncertain terms that the use of tripods was forbidden, so to save on weight I quickly deposited mine back in the car. Similar to what I’ve read about the Upper Canyon, and as can be seen in the shot above, there was a small area undercover to be used whilst waiting but this became full very quickly and in the hot Arizona sun I was keen to start the descent in to the cooler surroundings of the canyon ASAP. Cold bottled water was freely given out which helped though. Nevertheless, I was relieved when, a short time later, I heard my time being bellowed and I made my way over to the group leader, Meredith, before taking the short 50 metre walk to the stairs leading down to the canyon. Had I been interested in anything bar getting my shots, the guide gave some interesting facts about how the canyons formed and other historical information. I was just too busy scouting the best positions though and was quickly out of earshot to hear exactly what was being said.
In complete contrast to other experiences I’d read about, there was no real organisation as to where people should stand to allow everyone to shoot and so everyone was just sort of ambling around aimlessly, so I promptly headed to the front of the around 20 people in my tour, hoping that this would allow me at least a couple of extra seconds to shoot before I was trampled by those behind me. This worked well initially but ultimately turned out to be a bad idea, as I soon bumped in to the group ahead of me and so I became sandwiched between the two… Unable to shoot ahead, unable to shoot behind!
As such, I found myself taking more shots looking up and out of the canyon than along the narrow, winding corridors, as there were simply no views without at least one person’s body part in it. That said, there were still some great shots to be had like this though.
Realising I had to change tack quick, I began to slow down and joined the rear of the group, which allowed me to drag my heels a little and wait for the tour to disappear from sight ahead, whilst also holding up the group behind me slightly. I was also helped in this endeavour by a German couple who wanted to get similar people free shots, so they were happy to hold the group behind even further back, then I reciprocated for them. This was made slightly easier by the fact that most of the route through the lower canyon is fairly narrow, unlike some of larger open areas of the upper canyon we’re used to seeing, and so only one person at a time could move from one area to another.
At this point, I should say that whilst this sounds quite selfish, the group being held up behind us were quite happy to stand, chat to their companions and generally take in the stunning surroundings and so no one was stood shaking their heads or otherwise berating us for slowing them down. They, like me, had paid to sight see and wanted to get as much out of the experience as they could.
As this was only a sightseeing tour, the guides gave no real advice on the best spots to shoot, nor did they offer to throw sand in the air at the few small light shafts we came across, as others have described their guides doing at the Upper canyon. In fact the most photographic thing I heard from our guide was which white balance setting to use to get the best colours from the rocks at that time of day. Shooting in raw, such as I was though, this didn’t concern me but I noticed a fair number of the group start fiddling with their settings upon hearing this.
I was shooting 5 raw bracketed shots at a time due to the huge dynamic range at points because of the light levels changing so much from one spot to another (see why I think it’s so important to always shoot raw images here). I wanted to make sure that even if I didn’t use them for an HDR image in post, that I got what I needed, as I didn’t have long to play around with my shutter speed at each stop before pushing on to the next. In the end it was about a 50/50 split of HDR and single exposure images I processed. I managed to rattle off a number of images using this stop/start method before the tour leader of the group behind me started to move me forward, but only because I were lagging so far behind my guide. I obviously nodded politely and scurried off, before slowing down again just before I caught up with everyone.
I did get a few opportunities to shoot through the canyon, as opposed to upwards, but they were few, hurried and, as described above, in much narrower areas than I’d anticipated, so it wasn’t ideal by any stretch and of the three or so light shafts we found, none of them yielded a great image. Certainly nothing close to netting me a cool, Peter Lik-esque, $65m!
That said, I was happy with the shots I grabbed and happier still that I was just able to see the canyon at all, as we hadn’t planned to visit in our original plans, as we didn’t think we’d have the time for it.
Having been in the canyon for around an hour by the time I climbed back out in to the blinding sun, I felt I had shot it to death and so I was ready to get back to the car and head off on the 160 mile drive to my next photo location, Inspiration Point in Bryce Canyon, Utah.
Given the opportunity to go back again though, I would definitely schedule in more time, opt for the photographic tour and, if possible, head to the Upper Canyon. The Lower Canyon still had some beautiful spots and was very reasonably priced comparitively. It was also a great experience just to see it for myself and if that’s all your after, then you’d probably struggle to justify paying up to three times as much for the Upper Canyon tour.
If you do want the opportunity to sell your images for ridiculous, eight figure amounts though, then then the Upper Canyon is really place you should be headed.
I’d love to hear your experiences and see any shots you’ve taken of either of the canyons, so tag me in your shots or use #HybridPeter so I can take a look.