Welcome to my blog , UPPER ANTELOPE CANYON – My most difficult, stressful, exhausting and exhilaration photo shoot. This is the second leg of my great adventures during a nine-day trip to Arizona in March of this year during which I attended a five-day photography workshop co-hosted by Don Smith and Gary Hart. Both are wonderful leaders and fantastic photographers. The workshop incorporated three long-standing items on my “Dream List.” The Grand Canyon was one, this is the second. To see a larger version of any image, click inside the image itself. Be sure to hit the back button on your browser to return to the blog.
In 1997, the Navajos designated Antelope Canyon a Navajo Tribal Park and subject to Navajo Tribal laws. To the Navajos, these slot canyons are scared. I’m certain many years in the past, Navajo young men and women would pause at the entrance before reverently entering as one might do upon entering a cathedral. Hopefully, they would leave feeling uplifted and at peace. Today, visitors are asked to respect the land, the Navajo customs and the Navajo rules.
Once Antelope Canyon became a Navajo Tribal Park, they restricted access to the slot canyons. Visitors are now allowed only after buying a “permit” and are guided through by a knowledgeable guide. The Navajos have done an excellent job of protecting, preserving and showcasing these canyons.
Considering the number of visitors a year, the slot canyons remain incredibly unspoiled and pristine – except for the zillions of footprints in the sand. Upon entering you realize you are in one of the most magnificent of all natural creations.
The sunlight filtering down the curved sandstone walls makes magical, constantly changing patterns and shadows in many subtle shades. Some “rooms” of the
canyon are wider and bright, while others are very narrow and more cave-like, with no light reaching the sandy floor.
So you may be asking yourself, “What’s made this one of your most difficult, stressful, exhausting and exhilarating photo shoots?” Well, let me share a little of my experience with you.
Our Navajo tour guide picked our photography group up at our hotel about 30 minutes before our appointed tour time. The ride out to the canyon rivaled anything you would experience on an E ticket ride in Disneyland. Twelve of us packed into the back of an open-air truck bed on two benches back-to-back facing out (no seat belts here). We climbed up a ladder to get in with our tripods and cameras in hand. We had been forewarned to leave our camera bags at the hotel. Holding on to the railing to get up the ladder was hardly an option. Our guide did assist those who needed/requested a little help. We were packed in like sardines. I had the imprint of the person sitting next to me side-pocket button on my hip for two days. Okay, maybe I exaggerate a little, tiny bit. Honestly, not much though. The ride through town didn’t bring too much vocalization from the group. Once we were out of town and on the highway (and I use that term loosely), we picked up speed and so did the chatter in truck bed. The “trills” were building minute by minute. Our driver/guide must have been an off-road race driver in a previous life. Things got even more exciting when we turned off the paved road and onto an extremely rough, rutted, dusty four-wheeler road. With the entrance to Upper Antelope Canyon still a few miles away, our group clutched our equipment tighter and dug our heels into the bed of the truck as we all swayed first one way and then the other in unison. The driver didn’t slow down until we arrived at the entrance to the parking area which had upwards to 20 similar trucks already there. This was our first hint at the number of people already in the canyon. Happy that we made it this far safely, we tumbled down the ladder, laughing and joking and, most of all, excited about the adventure before us.
Over 160,000 visitors are herded through these narrow corridors each year. Most go between March and October, as the sun is then high enough in the sky and in the correct position to shine through the narrow openings at the top of the canyon walls creating those mystical shafts of light the canyon is so noted for.
Now remember, this canyon is narrow (at times less then 3 feet wide), full of loose sand, and only an eighth of a mile in length. Add to this, everyone is under a time pressure. Plus one’s own expectation and self-imposed pressure to capture breathtaking images, that some (this photographer included) had dreamed of for many years.
There are two kinds of tours: regular tours which may have as many as 80 to 100 people, separated in groups of 20. These tours take about 45 minutes. Then there are photography tours, which are limited to 12 people who are allowed to bring tripods and lasts two hours. Regular tours and photography tours are both going on at the same time. The canyon is extremely crowded and noisy. The air is full of sand – not good for breathing and certainly not good for your camera.
Our photography group was “guided” through by a very nice guide, who, in all honesty, tried to make our experience, while not necessarily pleasant, at least productive. We as a group had been strongly advised to pay attention to the guide and to do exactly what he tells us when he tells us to do it. We would be told where to stand, or kneel, to get the shots our guide points out. Very little was left to my discretion. Most of the time I had to shoot over people heads; wait for another group to pass through, try to stay out of other photographers’ way, and all the while keep moving through the canyon. Photography within the canyon is difficult due to several factors: 1) the wide dynamic range of highlights and shadows, 2) the sheer number of bodies moving around you, 3) pressure and stress (self-imposed and otherwise), 4) cramped quarters, and low light dictating a slower shutter speed and thus a longer exposure.
I, for one, was stressed to the tilt. This could be my “one” chance to photograph the slot canyons capturing the shaft of light and the indescribable color and beauty of the curving, flowing walls. I had to hurry from one shooting location to the next carrying my tripod with both hands in front of me and maneuvering around hordes of people coming towards me and people behind trying to get around me. At one point I tripped over someone’s foot and went down to my knees banging one knee on a rock, but having the foresight and determination to keep my tripod and thus my camera ahead of me and holding it up with both hands as I fell. Had I let go of the tripod with one hand to break my fall, my camera could have been severely damaged. Luckily, no harm done. One knee sore for a couple of days, but forgotten before I even got out of the canyon. The guide constantly yelling at me to “move along,” “you’re holding up others,” “over here,” “stand there,” “kneel down,” “shoot up,” “shoot down,” “did you get that shot I told you to?” “Move on now.”
This was not the peaceful, quiet cathedral-like experience I had thought it would be when I signed up. Had I done more research beforehand, I wouldn’t have had such high expectations. The two group leaders of our photography group did a wonderful job of preparing us as to what our experience would be like. If I had gone into the canyon without their forewarning and advice on what to take, what to expect, how to deal with the crowds and the time constraints and the assurance that in the canyon our guide was truly our best friend, I would have totally freaked out and probably come home with very few, if any, usable images.
Now all that said, would I go back? You bet ya! In a heartbeat! I would love to have spent a little time just looking around, trying to recreate what the early Navajos must have felt upon entering the slot canyon and thinking about how to capture my unique shot. With this experience, I’m sure the next time I go, I will settle down, not stress out (as much), have lower expectations and take the time to find those “special” compositions that speak to me.
Once back in my hotel room, I mused a short time about my experience in the slot canyon, then starting cleaning by camera and equipment. In less than a couple of hours we were all headed to Horseshoe Bend – my third “Dream List” location of this trip.
Thank you for reading this blog. I so enjoy sharing my adventures with everyone and have been encouraged to continue. To see more of my images from Upper Antelope Slot Canyon, click http://gailberremanphotography.com/other/. You can also check out my Facebook page at https://www.facebook.com/GailBerremanPhotography
Remember to get outside, enjoy Mother Nature and always Look for the Extraordinary in the Ordinary!