Antelope Canyon - A Photographers Experience

by Thomas Schoeller  1/6/17

My Autumn of 2016 Photo Safari of the American Southwest was an amazing experience that was a well planned and executed excursion. I invested a great deal of my time into researching this excursion before the final details of the itinerary were completed and reserved on January 01, 2016. I explored at length all 5 of Utah's National Parks and make side trips into northern Arizona including the mesmerizing slot canyons that have become quite the sudden rage, Antelope Flats.

This photo trip kept us busy for nearly a full month. During previous photography adventures out west I teamed up with a fellow photographer and good friend from Vermont, John Vose. I've found networking with other like-minded professionals to be valuable for splitting expenses at many levels. I recommend this to any photographers that travel extensively and take some degree of risk. An extra benefit is the fun you'll have blasting your photography buddies accidentally with counter assault bear spray or (good one) packing their pockets with aromatic sweets for back country excursions while hiking in bear country. (sic)

Since the risk of a Grizzly encounter is not even remotely possible in southern Utah or Arizona, it opened up a great opportunity for my wife Carol to share this photography adventure with me as my photography assistant. To this day she is still waiting to get paid!  This would be our first time experiencing an Antelope Canyon photo tour, an eye-opening and costly experience that we were not prepared for. Thus the very root cause for writing this article.

                                 

Titled "Follow the Light"

I'm told the network at Antelope Canyon are now the most photographed slot canyons in the world. It's located on the Navajo Indian reservation near Page, Arizona in the shadow of the Navajo 2250 megawatt power generating station. My article on these slot canyons is rather polarized since there was (as of December 2015) very little published information describing the details and behind the scenes reviews of the "photography" tours. My goal here is pretty simple. Enlighten serious photographers on any level ranging from novice to full pro for what they are about to experience, the investment and how to be best prepared for your slot canyon exploration.

First, let's begin with a brief modern day history of the Antelope canyons. The canyon's interior was first photographed by a local southwest photographer named Tom Till dating back to the late 1970's. At the time, Till was the most serious landscape photographer in the region, and his work had been and still is used for environmental battles to save endangered places, and the creation of new parks and wilderness areas. Till would often describe his experiences as "he could travel right up to the canyon's opening and spend as much time as needed without a single human being present". 

As you can see, much has changed since tourism has brought it's commercialism and crowds. By 1987, private tour companies have been permitted to offer tours of the canyons. Up until 1997, you could still access the slot canyons without a guide. Since '97 when the Navajo tribe made it a Navajo tribal park, access to Antelope Canyon is gated and restricted to authorized Navajo tour guides only. In short, if you want to photograph the abstract wonder, bounced light and light shafts the canyon is known for, there is only one game in town.

   

"Warped Light"

Antelope Canyon is actually two distinct and separated guided tours. The Upper Canyon, and Lower Antelope Canyon. Both offer different and unique explorations. The Upper Canyon requires a 12 minute long rough and dusty drive provided by your hired guide near the slot entrance where you can easily walk in. The shafts of light that penetrate during the summer months are far more common here. Lower Antelope Canyon is a few miles from the Upper Canyon and it's parking area is much closer to the slot's entrance, however, requires a very steep and high metal staircase climb. The difficult access tends to cut back on the number of tourist that visit here. It's much longer than the Upper Canyon, and the footing in places can be difficult. As you can imagine, the Upper Canyon will draw far more casual tourist and sightseers which don't understand what you do or care for that matter and are a handfull to manage. If you're a Pro photographer, this obviously makes your job far more difficult. Given my limited time alotted for the balance of my day, I made a quick decision and gambled on the Upper Antelope Canyon.

With the huge influx of visitation, fully guided tours are perhaps a necessity. The risk of a flash flood is very real. NOAA weather radio and the National Weather Service alarm horns are stationed at the Navajo fee booths to warn of impending risk. The guided tours provides a way to account for and accommodate the virtual flood of humans that are far more inconvenient and happen more frequently than the rising flood waters do. 

Moving on with my tour experience.  As stated earlier, this is a biased article based on a handful of unexpected drama's I experienced that could be avoided with better organization by the Navajo tours. The day began in the darkness of pre-dawn leaving Ruby's Lodge in Bryce Canyon N.P.  We had a few hours travel ahead of us, and I wanted to get the best lighting possible for at least one of the slot canyons and if at all possible, get to HorseShoe Bend for sunset.

Arriving before noon, the directions I Googled brought us directly to one of the "Antelope Canyon Navajo Tours" just north of Rte 98 and east of the huge Power generating plant. A crude hand-painted sign on the edge of the roadway directed you to an open sand parking lot. We navigated to what appeared to be the place to congregate. Sitting alone behind a simple folding table was a middle aged Navajo woman who seemed rather detached or not interested in the slightest. Posted signs crudely attached to poles directly behind her contradicted each other which was cause for eyebrow raising concern. One of them read NO PHOTOGRAPHY / NO TRIPODS allowed. Funny, I had Googled Antelope Canyon Photography Tours and it directed me here. Other posted signage warned you that the contents of your vehicle in the parking lot may be at risk!  So what the hell here? Am I in a third world country?

So after browsing the interesting signs I approached her table. No formal greetings, no smile or how can I help you. I'm sure if I stood there and not asked verbally inquired the awkward silence and blank stare could have lasted some time. She seemed unwilling to divulge much information at first, or even elaborate past simple terse replies to my questions. Having a bad day perhaps counting all that cash?  In the meanwhile, my time is wasting away. 

Finally, she paired multiple words into a question and asked me if we had stopped across the road at the other Canyon tour establishments. I told her "no, this was the first place we stopped. I'm a professional photographer. I'm here today to book a photography tour and photograph at least one of the slot canyons". Instead of being purposely vague for what seemed an eternity, she could have made this more pleasant and told me up front she was one of 4 tour guide services and her's did not offer photography tours!

~ The first lesson learned, find out exactly which Canyon Tour's offer photography tours where tripods and advanced equipment are welcome.

  

"Tumbleweed Catacomb"

Get out your pen or bookmark this page! Here' the financial damage your about to incur if you plan to use more than use an iPhone to make images. The first choir is to head over to the Navajo Indian council (Parks and Rec) off Hgwy 98.  A "Special Use Permit" is required for doing photography. Of course, Park and Rec doesn't have a booth set up at any of the tour guide booths since that would simplify things. (pardon my sarcasm) This requires an additional trip to town to find a trailer behind a white cinder block building. The Special Use Permit is in addition to the fee's you pay to the tour guides later. The permit includes a "park" processing fee of $50.00 plus an additional $8.00 per person. Including fuel and drive time your now out of $70.00 before you arrive back at the tour guide location with this paper in hand. This fee is subject to change. I was told this permit "could be revoked for any reason at any time per the discretion of parks manager". I'm sensing this is going to be a rather exploitive excursion and having doubts that the absorbent fees will not be met with a quality experience.  

We race back to "Adventurous Antelope Canyon Guided Tours". This is not the first place where Google sent me. Pulling into a sandy gravel mix parking lot with a small trailer that serves as an office with a pole barn awning and a handful of benches that offers some shade from the sun's rays. After parking our SUV rental, at my own risk of course, we made our way over to the trailer to meet up for our scheduled "Photography Tour". After displaying my special use Navajo Park permit, the guided tour fee is an additional $150.00 per photographer! I successfully negotiated my wife's fee down to $26.00 since she was not a photographer and only an assistant. The photo tour expense not including the $70.00 "park" processing fee and $8.00 per person "entry fee" was $176.00.        

"Navajo Flame"

 

The Tour Begins.  Three photographers, each with a single guest, are assembled and separately from the standard canyon tours. Our tour guide goes through the pre-game warmups, and tries to tell us what ISO and F-stop settings he wants you to set your camera for. It's obvious he's attempting to make this a quick and simple photo tour by bumping up everyone's ISO for very short exposures which of course comes at the expense of professional gallery quality fine art images. Bullshit!  Not on my $250.00 investment am I going to make it easier to zip us in and out of there. One of my eyebrows lifted, ala Clint Eastwood, and was noticed by our very young male tour guide. This same "look" my wife stresses over since she knows it's usually followed by myself providing an attitude adjustment on someone that oversteps their boundaries. I calmly explained I'm a full pro, I lead advanced photography workshops back home and I'm not here for intermediate or beginners photography lessons.

~ The second lesson learned, speak up on your own behalf!  

Having spoken up on the entire photo tours behalf, I was able to convince the tour guides to give us the promised 3 to 4 full minutes per session inside the canyon to compose and execute. *Side note* It did turn out our photo tour guide was a really cool dude. We chatted during the tour and he explained it's a way to test out the group to see if any really serious photographers are present. Most it turns out are not, but are required to pay extra for a tripod and to keep tourist at bay.

During the rough drive to Upper Antelope, my wife and I acquainted ourselves with the other photographers and their guest. One couple was from France, the other from Germany. The French couple told us we were the first American's they met beyond lodging staff or fuel ups since they began exploring during their southwest trip. No doubt, the wonders of the American Southwest are a worldwide attraction. Not a serious or professional photographer between the two couples from Europe, just enthusiast whom I found barely had basic skills when we began setting up for our first composition in the slot canyon. I felt terribly for them, I was able to bracket 2 sets of 3 exposures before they had their tripods ready to make a single exposure! They watched me slack jawed as I rapidly adjusted my carbon fiber tripod and ball head for the first photo shoot. I brought this up to our guide to allow them advanced notice to ready themselves before the next stop.

Timesavers TIP: Once you exit your transport vehicle have your camera body firmly attached to your ball head and at least fully extend the lower portion of your tripod legs.

I convinced our guide to allow the trailing tourist sightseeing guided tours to pass through so the other 2 inexperienced photographers could set up and prepare. That worked great for everyone, even giving myself additional time to photograph scenes upwards so passing tourist could not find a way into my field of view. These were bonus shots that are very difficult to get within Upper Antelope Canyon. He managed to work this out twice with other Navajo tour guides that were all too glad to keep their perspective tours moving along. This was our guides final "Professional Photographers" tour of the day, he was kind enough to allow our time limit to run past the allotted 2 hour time frame no doubt influenced by my urgings. This helped mitigate some of the negativity and confusion that greeted us when we arrived. To some degree, this left my wife and I with a positive upward trending vibe as the tour completed. 

Contact Information you may need  Here is the contact information for the Navajo Park and Rec Dept located in Window Rock, Arizona. Ph# 928-871-6636. You're inquiring about a Special Use Permit. If you are using a tripod, which is highly recommended since you'll be making exposures over 30 seconds this permit is a must!

The tour guide service I used was Adventurous Antelope Canyon Photo Tours, LLC. The website is www.navajoantelopecanyon.com   Prepare to pay $150.00 per photographer.

Equipment to Bring: It can get real dusty inside the slot canyons thanks to the winds above. This sounds weird, but you'll only need to bring one lens and you won't want to risk a lens swap inside the canyon. Removing a lens inside the canyons will undoubtedly increase the odds of dust specs all over your sensor. A super wide lens is not needed!  I used a 24-70mm F/2.8 on my Nikon D810 body. The D810 provides amazing dynamic range. Despite bracketing 3 exposures for each composition, manually blending exposures during post processing was unnecessary. If you have a good 24-120mm lens or similar this will give you a nice reach to crop scenes as you'll have limited room and time inside to move about. Lastly, but very critical, bring your lens cleaning kit with you and attach it to your belt or have a guest hold it for you. Blower, brush, cleaning solution and 2 lens cloths just to be safe. If you don't own a blower, purchase one before this trip! I also advise you to pick up a Ruggard rain cover #RC-P8 which protects your equipment from rain, dust and mud. They are easy to use on a tripod, universal fit and allow your hands inside to make manual exposure and focus adjustments.

Risk: If there is a risk of flash floods, they'll cancel the tour until the risk subsides. If you bring too much equipment in the Navajo off-road transport vehicle you may be forced to leave some behind. I'm not kidding whan I tell you to bring only what I listed above. The transport vehicles are not secured or locked per Navajo tribal law. I'm not implying your belongings will disappear, but is that the risk you wish to take?

 

An additional risk that is inherent is will you get good value in return for your investment? During your photography tour, it's almost a certainty that stray tourist could ruin a few shots!  Most strays do not speak English or understand their Navajo guide. They seem to aimlessly wander into your range of view, or feel the need to move your camera and tripod out of their way so they can catch up to their group. Certainly not with malicious intent, they are just plain ignorant to what you do so just be cognizant of your tripod location.  

Streamlining your equipment and arranging your permits in advance will remove tons of stress and drama from your excursion. Remember, if you are there to make great images you MUST book a photography tour and not a sightseeing tour. I saw several photographers waiting under the tent with a backpack full of gear and tripods pay for a sightseeing tour, and then are told "Oh no, you can't bring photography gear into the canyon" only to miss their opportunity to book a photography tour.

I wish I had a tell-all guide and all necessary contact information beforehand!

Real World Cost Comparison: Consider yourself forewarned.

Let me provide you with some eye-opening facts to consider if your a photographer by comparing the fee's for an Antelope flats guided tour vs. a 1 year National Parks Pass. For $80.00 you can purchase 365 days admittance for National Park and Federal Recreation lands. It can be shared amongst 2 owners and allows kids under 16 for free. No limitations on how many visits, and enjoy free ranger-led excursions and amazing hikes as well as the visitor centers and restrooms.Yosemite, Glacier, Yellowstone, Acadia, 59 in all within the USA and good for a full year. By comparison, the Slot canyons, as of this writing you may expect to pay $150.00 for the photography only tour ($26.00 for guest) plus an additional $58.00 Park and Recs fee per photographer. That's $208.00 of non-refundable or revoked without notice fee's for approximately 2 hours of photo tour vs only $80.00 for a potential of 438,300 hours. You guessed right if you figured out Tours do NOT recognize National Park passes. Granted, this is a privately operated tour and I would have gladly secured a professional guide service to get me to a difficult natural feature to photograph it. For the length of time and what you get in return for your money at Antelope Canyon's excursions, it's highly exploitive.  

Lastly, if you are able to get out early enough from an Antelope canyon photo tour try to head over to Horseshoe Bend of the Colorado River for sunset!. It's just 20 minutes from Antelope Canyon on Hgwy 89 to the parking lot, and then a steady 1 mile upward hike to the 1,000 ft. high cliffs.

    

Happy shooting friends!

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