Craig Holloway

Landscape photography by Craig Holloway

Antelope Canyon Photography Tips

Upper Antelope Canyon is certainly one of the most challenging environments I've ever shot in. A photographer aiming to take home quality images has to deal with endless crowds (often bumping you or your tripod), loads of dust in the air as well as short and strict time periods to shoot at each location within the canyon. Preparation is key to success here, and I will share some tips from my recent time in both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon and what I found helpful in nailing the shot.

Expect the guides to throw lots of sand into the air during 'beam season', creating a massive dust hazard for your camera.

Protecting against dust

The canyons, particularly Upper, are very dusty. Guides throw sand into the air to help enhance the famous light beams that everyone wants to capture, and this ends up finding it's way on and into your gear. It goes without saying you should not change lenses in Antelope Canyon, but beyond that I also highly recommend a high-quality screw on clear protective filter as well as a lightweight and disposable weather cover for your body and lens. 

The filter will make cleaning your lens element much easier as well as potentially ensuring that no dust is sucked into your lens barrel if you have a lens like mine which moves the front element as the lens is zoomed. Without the filter, dust could potentially get taken into the barrel with these movements. Bring a Rocket Blower and a brush to keep the filter clean - I recommend cleaning it after each tripod move (which is to say, very regularly.) A disposable weather cover will help keep dust from working it's way into your camera and lens through other areas, particularly if it is not a sealed lens or body. B&H offer a great option under the Op/Tech brand.

Camera and tripod - be familiar with them

I saw countless photographers whose obvious inexperience with either their camera or tripod meant that when they should have been shooting, they were stuffing around. Cheap and nasty tripods were a big culprit in particular, with some unfortunate photographers spending more time trying to get their tripod to work for them than actually shooting. Be intimately familiar with all your gear, and please bring a high quality tripod and ballhead along. 

Expect autofocus to be unreliable at best within the canyon - the often dim lighting conditions may prove challenging for your camera. It will be very helpful if you are familiar with the manual focus behaviour of your lens - using the depth-of-field scale, learn your focus points at each focal length before heading into the canyon. On the Nikon 16-35 f4 lens I used inside, through experience with that lens I am able to gain critical focus very quickly by using manual focus and the depth-of-field scale. That isn't to say the scale is totally accurate on this lens - it isn't - but through experience I have come to learn the focus behaviour of the lens. This is also useful at night - when shooting astrophotography, I can quickly achieve sharp focus for the stars without any stuffing around.

Shots like this can be obtained if you take the time to look straight up.

Go low

Don't forget to look up! Some amazing compositions can be found within both canyons simply by pointing your camera straight above your head. At times this may require contorting yourself into uncomfortable positions to try and compose your shot on a camera with the viewfinder and LCD facing the ground, but it's worth it. A camera with an articulating display would be useful here; unfortunately the high-end DSLRs from Canon and Nikon do not offer this feature, although it can be found on Sony A7-series bodies. I spent a lot of time in both canyons crouching and squatting low to try and aim straight up, but it's worth the discomfort to capture some unique perspectives.

Focal lengths

To be honest there is no right or wrong answer as to what lens or focal range to bring to Antelope Canyon. It's actually a location where a so-called 'walkabout' zoom may come in handy, as it will allow you to capture a wide range of unique perspectives. Longer focal lengths are useful for creating interesting abstracts in the canyon, while wide angles create shots which capture the scale of the canyon itself. 

As mentioned above, I used a 16-35mm (on a full-frame body) in the canyon and found it generally adequate. Usually I did not want it to be any wider, although there were times that some additional reach would have been handy. Most of my images were captured between 20mm and 28mm, however I did use the full focal range of the zoom at one stage or another. A 24-70mm could also be a good option in here to provide some additional range. Alternatively, if you have the chance to go through the canyon multiple times, you could go through it with a different lens attached each time, which will certainly allow you to walk away with unique images from each visit. 

If you only have the opportunity to visit once, I would recommend either a 16-35 (or similar) or a 24-70 (or similar) however this does entirely depend on what sort of images you hope to come away with - abstracts or wider canyon scenes.

When to go

Antelope Canyon is a beautiful place to photograph year-round. Although the famous beams are only present during the months of April to September, the off-season months can still have some beautiful light and colour conditions, and will likely be less crowded - particularly in winter. During the summer months, flash flood risks mean that the canyon may be closed to visitors periodically, so if Antelope Canyon is a 'must see' I would suggest allowing some buffer time to enable a visit in case of a closure due to flood risk.

Time limits

In the Upper Antelope Canyon your time at each 'stop' is carefully managed by your guide, usually amounting to only a handful of minutes at each location - although you will often get a chance to revisit it later in the tour. These tight restrictions are why familiarity with your gear is so important, as discussed in the above paragraph. Time spent stuffing around with settings is time not spent capturing images. In the Lower Canyon, which has fewer people, your guide will probably be a bit more lenient and allow you to set the pace. On both occasions I did Lower, my guide was happy to let me wander off on my own and set-up my shots where I wanted, however on particularly busy days you may not be offered this choice.

A light beam in Upper Antelope Canyon near the end of the season. Obtaining people-free shots of beams is an exercise in patience.

You want to keep your exposure times relatively short in both canyons, although sometimes very dim lighting conditions will necessitate a longer exposure. There is a trade-off between depth-of-field and shutter speed you will need to make here; a wider aperture will enable shorter exposures and allow you to capture more compositions at each stop, however on the flipside you will potentially sacrifice depth-of-field and leave parts of the scene out of focus. Personally I opted to shoot between f11-f13 in the canyon most of the time, preferring to ensure adequate DoF. Certainly you don't want to be entertaining the idea of using a polariser in here; the loss of 1-1.5 stops of light will be significant. 

Finally, tourists blindly wandering into your frame are a reality in here - particularly in the Upper Canyon, which is much more crowded. A good photo guide will perform crowd control to try and keep them out of your frame as long as possible, but at the end of the day there are dozens of tour groups in here simultaneously (especially during high season) and they can only keep the tourists at bay for so long. From my observations, the companies conducting the tour all seem to have an informal agreement to allow clear access for photography groups, and will hold back the regular hordes for a minute or two at each stop to allow a clear scene. Make use of these precious moments, for it is how images such as the above are able to be captured free of people. 

I hope these tips are helpful for any photographers looking to tackle Antelope Canyon. Enjoy.