Shooting The Slots


A tripod is a must for shooting in the canyons--the passageways are darker than one might think, especially on overcast days. This image was taken in Upper Antelope Canyon. (Tech info: A 4Mp digital SLR, ISO 200, 16-35mm zoom at 16mm, f/11, 4 sec exposure.)
Photos © 2002, Rick Sammon, All Rights Reserved

From a purely sensuous point of view, few outdoor scenes beat Arizona's Upper Antelope Canyon and Lower Antelope Canyon, two of the best-known slot canyons in the world.

The curves, shapes, and forms of the winding canyon walls, carved out of stone by eons of erosion, entice photographers from around the world to go there to capture their beauty; it's a striking beauty that changes from moment to moment as the light, filtering down through narrow slots at the roof of the canyons, changes throughout the day.

From a logistical point of view, getting to the magnificent slot canyons is relatively easy. Both are located at about a 10-15 minute drive from Page, Arizona, which is about a one-hour flight or six-hour drive from Phoenix.

This cut-away in Lower Antelope Canyon is a popular site, one which is easy to find. Millions of years of erosion have left a layer of fine dust on the floors of both canyons. That dust can damage your camera, so don't place your camera bag down on the ground. (Tech info: A 4Mp digital SLR, ISO 200, 16-35mm zoom at 16mm, f/11, 5 sec exposure.)

Once in Page, where you can easily rent a car and find a hotel room, you hop in your car and drive down Route 98 toward the power plant, Page's main landmark that billows smoke into the air through tall smokestacks. Signs mark the entrances to both canyons, which are on opposite sides of the road, about a half-mile apart.

At Upper Antelope Canyon, you join a group at the entrance. Then a four-wheel drive vehicle takes you to the walk-in entrance of the canyon.

You can explore Lower Antelope Canyon on your own, after you are guided to the entrance, a narrow slot in the ground that leads to a metal ladder that you climb down.

Cost per canyon visit is $20-$50 per person, depending on the group's size and length of visit. Wear hiking boots and pack a rain slicker to drape over your camera bag in case of rain. Try to get to the canyons around 10am, when the entrances open.

This narrow passageway is the entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon, which offers shapes and forms waiting to be captured by creative photographers. (Tech info: A 4Mp digital SLR, ISO 200, 16-35mm zoom at 16mm, f/8, 1/125 sec exposure.)

Spring, summer, and fall are good times to visit the area--unless you want to photograph some nice snow scenes.

Capturing the beauty of the canyon walls, bathed with highlights and filled with shadows, can be tricky. Try to compose your pictures so that the contrast range does not exceed that of your film (about 3 stops for slides and 5 stops for print film) or digital image sensor (3-5 stops, depending on your camera and your digital darkroom know-how). Keep in mind that our eyes have a much wider sensitivity range than any film or digital image sensor--in effect, about 11 f/stops. As always, follow the pro's BLH rule: Bracket Like Hell.

You'll definitely need a tripod to steady your camera in the relatively low-light conditions. You'll also need a wide angle lens in the 16-24mm range if you want to take in large areas of the canyons. I'd also suggest using a small aperture, say f/11, for good depth of field.

Monument Valley is only about a two-hour drive east from Page, Arizona. After shooting the slot canyons around Page, take a side trip. Plan to be there early in the morning or late in the day for the best light. (Tech info: A 4Mp digital SLR, ISO 200, 16-35mm zoom at 24mm, f/8, 1/125 sec shutter speed.)

Another challenge you'll face is getting a picture without other photographers in the scene. I found that if you work as a team with the others in your group, you will all have a much better chance of getting good shots during your self-guided tour. One-hour and two-hour tours are standard in Upper Antelope Canyon, but you can spend an unlimited time in Lower Antelope Canyon. I spent about one hour in each canyon and was very pleased with my pictures.

If you go to the slot canyons, keep this word in mind: respect. First, you must respect the weather conditions. If it looks like rain and the guides tell you to leave the canyons, do it. They can flood. In 1977, 11 French tourists lost their lives in a flood. Second, keep in mind that you are on Navajo land, which is sacred to the Navajo. During my visit, one very disrespectful photographer was shooting two nude models--while the other photographers looked on. When the guides learned about the unauthorized photo session, they demanded the photographer's film. The entire group felt the stress. Hey, I am not against photographing nudes. But I am against photographers who have total disrespect for others.

Shame on him!

Horseshoe Bend, formed by the Colorado River, is about 10 minutes from Upper Antelope and Lower Antelope Canyons. It is located off Route 89, about four miles south of Page on Route 89. The entrance, on the right side of the road, has no sign, so keep your eyes peeled for a dirt road that leads to a small parking lot. To get a shot like this, you'll need a 16mm lens on a digital SLR or a 24mm lens on a 35mm SLR. A gradual filter will help reduce the contrast range between the sky and foreground. A polarizing filter will reduce the reflections on the water. Of course, a tripod will let you shoot with a small aperture for great depth of field.

While you are in the area, take an hour and photograph Horseshoe Bend, about four miles south of Page on Route 89 (not Route 98). There are no identification signs, so as you are driving, look for a dirt road and parking lot on the right side of the road. It's a spectacular formation carved by the Colorado River. For the best light, go in early morning. Bring a wide angle lens (16-24mm), polarizing filter, gradual filter, and tripod.

If you plan to make a weekend photo trek to the area, take a drive to Monument Valley, made famous in many John Wayne Western movies. It's only about two hours away. There are several chain-name hotels to stay at in Kayenta, Arizona--the "entrance" to Monument Valley. Tours are easy to book at the park entrance, but you can drive through if you have a four-wheel drive (so rent one in Page if you plan to go).

You may also want to explore Lake Powell, which is about 10 minutes from Page. You will see some wonderful scenery there, too, especially if you rent a small boat.

A relatively open area in Lower Antelope Canyon gave my guide, "Casey," an opportunity to shoot me shooting the slots. Including a person in a slot shot adds a sense of scale to the picture. Try it just for fun! (Tech info: A 4Mp digital SLR, ISO 200, 16-35mm zoom at 24mm, f/5.6, 1/30 sec exposure.)

In closing, my guess is that you will take more pictures than you be prepared with plenty of film or memory cards.

For more information on the slot canyons of Arizona, do a Google search ( by typing in "slot canyons."

Rick Sammon is the author of "Rick Sammon's Complete Guide to Digital Imaging." Contact Rick at for information. Rick is also leading a "Shutterbug" digital photography workshop to the slot canyons in May of this year.