Some locations in the American Southwest inspire awe for their natural beauty, others amazement and wonder at the forces behind their creation, and still others dazzle the senses with their almost other-worldliness. From your first encounter from within the depths of slot canyons, they do all three.
Among the now famous slot canyons of the Colorado plateau, the Antelope Canyons near Page, Arizona hold the grandest spectacle in most people’s minds and hence are the most populated. Upper Antelope Canyon is most famous for the magical sunbeams shining through to the ground during certain seasons at specific times of the day, and these beams, along with the relatively easy walk through the canyon, has made Upper Antelope the most popular, and over-crowded, among tourists.
However, for this photographer, Lower Antelope Canyon casts a unique spell for those willing to invest the effort to traverse the canyon and search earnestly for its treasures.
Lower Antelope Canyon can be entered with or without a guide, and while I almost always prefer to travel and photograph solo, there is something to be said for going at least once with a knowledgeable guide. That said, I went solo for my most recent trips through the canyon on successive days this May and found the combination of relative solitude and exploration unmatched.
Lower Antelope Canyon is quite compact texturally; thus, the smallest change in gaze or footing may completely shift the composition, and many of the locations from which professional images you have seen have been made may be passed by without a second glance if you are not prepared to spot some of the landmarks to help guide you to these prime shooting spots.
The following information is intended to provide at least some guidance based on what I have seen and experienced thus far, including places to stop and direct your gaze, either facing forward or turning around, and facilitate you composing the image in your mind’s eye. The most amazing feature of this canyon is that two photographers standing shoulder to shoulder may still create completely unique images due to the subtleties in position and their unique interpretation of the slot canyon’s color and texture.
Lower Antelope Canyon: getting there and getting in
Lower Antelope Canyon can be found just a few miles outside Page, Arizona, and is easy to spot from Highway 98. Once there, you will need a photography pass to enter (currently $26, including $20 for the pass plus $6 for the Navajo parks fee). All posted signs and online information state that you must be accompanied by a guide, but this appears to be a rule in spirit only unless you specifically want that experience. Your pass officially grants you access for two hours, although I do not know if this in enforced or not (my suspicion is that it is not). The “office” opens about 8am (Navajo time appears slightly flexible), and I highly recommend being among the first in line to enter so that you have less foot traffic by larger, non-photography tour groups, which seem to begin around 9am. All photo ops are still available even when the canyon is full of people, because the angles you are shooting rarely include ground shots. However, fewer people are always better, and you will find yourself better able to concentrate earlier in the day.
The Basics: Equipment
Photo essentials for the canyon: tripod, your best wide to mid-range lens already on your camera (you don’t want to change lenses inside the canyon due to dust), water, and perhaps a small snack depending on how long you plan to stay.
Beginning Your Journey through Lower Antelope Canyon
One final quick note before entering the canyon: try to determine whether or not you can enter and exit through the canyon “entrance” before you begin. In my visits in May I have always been able to do this and find it to be the best for photography, but I have read in other posts that during the busier summer months there may be a one-way flow. If so, you will need to stop to photograph what you see when you see it. If not, some areas are best captured on your return, or visited both on the way in and out!
Entering the canyon is a bit tricky, as the narrowest area is found at the very beginning. All of your travel on the way “in” is downward climbing of ladders or steps.
Immediately upon entering you are greeted with some amazing imagery and may be tempted to stop and begin shooting. I would advise against this – instead, mark the spot in your mind (or your camera or iPhone) and revisit it on the way out if possible. After scaling another ladder, a beautiful formation comes into view.
There are many ways to capture this challenging location, highlighting the texture and multiple colors that your camera will pick up even if you do not see them clearly while shooting. The biggest challenge here, and in many other locations, is to keep direct sunlight completely out of your shots, as even the smallest amount will blow out the highlights in that section of your shot and appear much more dramatic in your final photo than it will while shooting.
After climbing down the next ladder you will head through a narrow walkway that passes through the area that, when looking back, forms the famous “Indian Chief” image.
This is a nice cliché photo; however, if you walk back immediately adjacent to the “chief” rock formation and look up with your back on the right side of the canyon, there is a more interesting formation that is open to artistic interpretation [Photo].
You will again have to be creative at getting as far back against the canyon wall as possible so you can utilize all of the swirling rock formations in your shots.
Beyond “the chief” there are a series of canyon twists and turns leading to the “Angel’s Heart” area.
This area has a sunbeam that comes around 10:30am in May – the beam is nice but not comparable to those in upper antelope canyon and in my opinion not worth planning your trip around. However, the area is otherwise rich with potential imagery. I have not taken anything here that I love yet. The best photo I’ve seen was taken by Peter Lik and can be seen by visiting his web site: www.lik.com and viewing the “Angel’s Heart” image in the “canyons/arches” section. There are numerous other renditions of this image online – simply google “Angels’s Heart Lower Antelope Canyon.”
Beyond “Angel’s Heart” there are more ladders on your way to perhaps the most stunning formation in the canyon, which I have heard called “the wave” (not to be confused with “the wave” formation in Colorado Buttes). There are limitless opportunities, angles, and interpretations of this amazing structure.
This formation is somewhat tucked away on your left-hand side as you walk forward through the canon and occurs next to at a narrow partial s-shaped curve in the canyon floor – you will reach the narrow floor and have to twist yourself to the right a bit and then back to the left , which makes this area easier to miss, since you may be paying more attention to where ou are stepping thanthat the walls hold for you! Once through the tight curve (actually right within it) if you search the wall that was on your leftlooking back slightly these waves will come into focus for you.
Most images from here contain the dominant orange “wave” somewhere in the composition. There are two additional powerful visual elements that will drive your composition, and these change dramatically based on where you position yourself for your shots. If you look at these photos of the wave, you will notice a strong element in the upper left corner of the image – that is actually the left wall of the canyon jutting into the scene. The second element is the dominant foreground curve, which usually has a blue hue depending on the light. As you can see from these images, a slight move in tripod placement will create dramatically different imagery, especially with respect to this anterior wave.
Heading further down and passing another set of ladders, another unique location presents itself.
The best place to photograph this area appears to me to be accessed by getting yourself as far back as possible on the left-hand side of the canyon (your left as you when moving forward through the canyon) and setting up in a small recess (you can tell where others have set up here before), where you can take in the maximal amount of the dominant flowing formation on the right and top of this composition.
The possibilities are endless for interpreting this great formation, so don’t rush it. I have also found that both vertical and horizontal compositions work well here. Moving ever so slightly around the corner a completely unique viewpoint awaits you.
I felt this looked like a mountain lion on the right of the image – what do you think? This are is another that you may want to visit both on the way in and out, and where you will likely need to share time with other photographers.
The final location on my favorites list is just a bit further down the canyon. This spot seems relatively camouflaged to me; in fact, I was only able to find it one day out of the two I spent in the canyon this trip! I call this the “second wave,” and while it may not be as intricate as the first, it does prove another amazing combination of color and texture.
From this spot you can continue down the canyon until you reach the end after a few more sets of stairs and ladders. From there you have the option of exiting the canyon through a tall ladder and then walking back above ground, or by retracing your steps through the canyon. I highly recommend traveling back through the canyon if allowed, as everything will look different to you when you take it in through the reverse vantage point. After passing by all of the places we’ve already visited, near the canyon entrance (now hopefully your exit) you will come upon the area I mentioned at the very beginning. I have found this area easier to visualize on my return, which I why I mention it here, but again, if your flow is one-way only you will want to stop and look around here right after you enter the canyon.
So, that ends our journey through Lower Antelope Canyon, at least until I get back there again to explore and locate new vantage points! If you get a chance to visit, do so and enjoy!