If you’re a fairly inexperienced photographer, photographing Antelope Canyon is going to be a massive challenge. Here’s why:
It’s really dark
It’s really narrow
The light changes with every turn
You can’t bring a tripod (unless you’re on the photography tour)
You can’t bring a backpack (no space for different lenses etc – unless you’re on the photography tour).
There are literally hundreds of tourists jostling for the same shots
The first time I visited, I had literally no idea what I was doing. The iso on my camera was way too high, the exposure was way too long, and all my photos were blurry. Fortunately this time I came in with a lot more experience, and we came away with some great photos!
So you can go in prepared, here are a few quick tips for photographing Antelope Canyon:
Note: for the purposes of this post, we’re assuming you’re taking the regular tour and not the photography tour.
4 Quick photography tips for shooting Antelope Canyon:
Shoot in Manual – ok that’s very vague advice, but shooting in any auto mode generally leaves your camera to make the decisions. Often it will prioritize raising the iso before it’ll change the other settings, and will quite happily ruin the quality of your photos if you’re not careful. Make sure you practise using manual mode before you show up, because I guarantee you probably won’t be able to figure it out on the fly amidst all the chaos.
Make sure your exposure is fast enough – now that you’ve chosen manual mode, you’re going to want to make sure all your photos are as crisp as possible. In low light, an exposure that’s too slow is going to ruin the sharpness of your photos, especially bearing in mind that you won’t be allowed to bring a tripod with you. If you ask me, you’re going to want to keep your photos at least at 1/40, but honestly 1/80 and higher is probably a safer bet if you’re shooting handheld. The photo below was taken with 1/250 exposure, making it nice and sharp!
Keep the ISO as low as possible. I went into Antelope Canyon with my ISO at 100, with the intention of raising it as little as possible where necessary. If you can’t get the brightness you need once you’ve set your aperture, then and only then should you start raising the ISO. I raised my iso to 200, 400 and even 500 for a couple of shots, but I certainly wouldn’t recommend going any higher if you can avoid it. Depending on your camera, the acceptable noise levels may be higher or lower.
Set the aperture. Assuming your exposure and ISO are fixed, the final thing to set is the aperture. The landscape is very close range, so we don’t need an extremely wide depth of field for everything to be in focus. Ideally to have everything in focus you’ll probably want something like f7-8. If it’s too dark I’d recommend trying a wider aperture (f5-6 for example) before raising the iso. Especially with such a dark canyon, you’re going to really hate the photos if they get too noisy. The shot below was taken with f2.8 aperture to achieve a narrow depth of field, but in general your photos will probably need a higher aperture.
How to cope with the changing light
Because of the shape of the canyon, the light source is incredibly unpredictable. You’ll find that you’re going to have to constantly adjust your camera settings with each shot. If that doesn’t appeal to you, the next best solution for me would be to use exposure priority with a fixed iso (Tv setting); the camera will do its best to make all shots have the widest aperture (narrowest depth of field) possible though…which is probably not what you’re looking for.
If you do the Antelope Canyon photography tour, you’ll be able to bring a tripod (I recommend the MEFOTO classic aluminium backpacker travel tripod ) and several lenses and you’ll have a lot more flexibility/time with your settings. You can set the camera at its lowest ISO setting and let the exposure run for as long as necessary. With the regular tour, believe me, you won’t have time to fiddle around.
Which lens should I bring?
So as I mentioned, you aren’t able to bring a bag with you on the regular tour so you can forget bringing a bunch of different lenses. So what’s the ideal lens to bring along?
Ideally you’ll want a zoom lens rather than a prime lens. Zoom meaning a lens with an adjustable focal length, not a telephoto! I went in with our Tamron 24-70mm lens and it was perfect for the job. If I’d had a 16-35mm with me I probably would have brought that instead, but ultimately I was pretty happy my photos. My advice would be to forget bringing a 70-200mm unless you’re on the photography tour and can bring it as an additional lens.
If you are taking the photography tour and you’re thinking about changing lenses, bear in mind that this area is incredibly dusty. Too many lens changes and you might find yourself with a lot of dust in your equipment. Which leads me to the next tip: bring a dust blower!
Should I underexpose?
This is a tough question, because there’s just so much darkness in the canyon. If you get the exposure too low you might end up with a dark photo that can’t be recovered without introducing excessive noise. With that being said though, I would still generally try to underexpose, especially if you have a fairly new camera with decent low light capabilities. It’s way easier to bring out shadows than it is to fix a blown out photo. I generally tried to reduce the exposure until the sky wasn’t blown out, but the overcast sky made it next to impossible without bracketing.
Also bear in mind that the colours are going to be much richer in an underexposed photo and this can make for a much more beautiful and saturated image with post processing.
Do you want oranges/reds or blues/purples?
Depending on the time of your visit, the colours of the walls will vary dramatically. With early or evening tours, the light in the canyons is much lower, so you should expect much bluer/purple tones. If you visit closer to midday, the rocks will have a much more orange/red hue.
Other tips for photographing Antelope Canyon:
Don’t bother using an action camera like a Gopro if you’re serious about photographing Antelope Canyon. Anything that can’t cope well in low light is going to come out blurry and grainy. A Gopro will crank the ISO and ruin the quality of anything you shoot. I would definitely recommend using a Gopro for video though (filming was banned in Lower Canyon).
Look up. There will be times where no amount of smoke and mirrors will help you avoid the crowds. Aim your camera upwards and you’ll still find some incredible patterns in the rocks.
Details – some of the most incredible photos of Antelope Canyon that I’ve seen are closeups. The beautiful textures and patterns are stunning in themselves. This is where a 70-200m might prove handy.
Avoid shooting the sky if possible. In most cases it just makes exposing the photos properly more of a challenge. Work the angles and you’ll find plenty of ways to use the natural light without capturing the bright sky.
Don’t try to change lenses. With so much chaos and so much dust flying, my recommendation is to stick with one all round lens. Believe me, you won’t have time to waste switching lenses.
Prepare your settings for group shots. There’ll be various points where your guide might offer to take a photo for you. If you haven’t figured out the settings prior to handing it to them (including pre-focusing), you might find yourself disappointed. My solution was to take a test shot of the scene while other people were posing.
You can see the equipment we used while photographing Antelope Canyon below:
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