How to photograph the US Slot Canyons

Russ Barker, takes us on a scenic tour of the American Southwest Slot Canyons and explains all you need to know to get a good set of photos.

|  Landscape and Travel
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Russ Barker, takes us on a scenic tour of the American Southwest Slot Canyons and explains all you need to know to get a good set of photos.

It's difficult to describe the wonder of slot canyons of the American southwest - they are one of those things in nature that you really have to see for yourself . These canyons have been formed over millions of years on the Colorado plateau as flood after flood have cut their way through sandstone leaving narrow tall slots with delicately sculptured walls.

Without exception the initial reaction of anyone to whom I have first shown images of slot canyons is ‘what the heck is that?’ This is normally followed by an attempted description of the canyons, ultimately ending in failure – it seems that these canyons of the American southwest are just one of those things in nature that one has to see for oneself.
Hasselbald Xpan with a 45mm lens at f/16. Shot on Kodak EBX with an exposure of 30secs.

The Colorado plateau is of course blessed with a multitude of canyons, including the largest of them all -the Grand Canyon, but slot canyons consist of only sandstone- this leads to the creation of canyons which may be only a few feet wide yet hundreds of feet high. As the rock is eroded away layers of sedimentation are revealed and smoothed over time by the floods, revealing beautiful patterns and strirations.

Without doubt the best known of these slot canyons are Upper and Lower Antelope Canyons near Page in Arizona. Whilst this has much to do with ease of access it can also be said that photographically these canyons are amongst the most appealing. Upper Antelope Canyon is the most visited of all, the access here is easy and once inside the canyon the floor is level and no climbing or scrambling is needed. Its close neighbour, Lower Antelope Canyon, is the deeper of the two and whilst a visit here is possible for all reasonably agile individuals, some climbing is involved.

Outside of these two well known canyons there are a multitude of other slots to explore, only a handful of which I have had the pleasure to visit myself. All of these require some effort on the part of the photographer to reach them but once there the reward may be that you have the canyon to yourself which, depending on when you plan your visit, is something that you will rarely enjoy at Antelope.

Nikon D70 with a Nikkor 70-300mm ED at f/11. A 1.5 sec exposure was recorded at ISO200.

Before venturing to any slot canyon there are some important safety considerations which you should note. All slot canyons are prone to flash floods and if you are caught in a canyon during a flash flood the chances are that you will be unable to get out before it is too late. Floods can happen at anytime of the year but July through August sees the heaviest rainfall, and thunderstorms are more common in the afternoon than the mornings.

Even if the sky above is clear you must be aware that rain falling many miles away may drain into the slot – therefore always check the weather forecast before setting out and try to keep an eye out for changing conditions – not only directly above but also over the horizon. Even in the well visited Antelope Canyon a flash flood killed 11 tourists in 1997 – little rain had actually fallen in Page and some tourists ignored the advice of others to exit the canyon.

If you venture to the more remote canyons there will nobody to warn you of any danger and you must be aware of your own safety – whilst photographs of slot canyons are beautiful I have yet to see one worth dying for. Furthermore if you do venture to one of the lesser known canyons plan your trip accordingly, remember that you may well be walking many miles through desert – temperatures may reach in excess of 100 degrees and there will be little water to drink along the way.

Escaping Peek a Boo taken on a Nikon F601.

You will need to carry all the water you need, have a good map and a compass and be sure you know how to use both (recognizable landmarks may be few and far between), where possible never travel alone and always let someone know where you are going and when you intend to return.

With these safety provisos in mind it is said that the best time to photograph slot canyons are the hours around midday in summer months when the sun is high in the sky and the beauty of the canyons is revealed in the reflected light on the walls, although personally due to lower temperatures and less visitor numbers I prefer Sept and Oct.

You will invariably want to work with your lens stopped down to achieve as great a depth of field as possible- combined with the lack of direct light this means that exposures may vary from a second to over a minute. Therefore a tripod is absolutely essential for your visit, and you could do much worse than ensuring that you have packed a cable release and use mirror lock up wherever possible.

A variety of focal lengths will produce pleasing result, all the way from wide angle to long telephoto – the key to successful compositions will be how you decide to approach the contrast that you will see.

Nikon F80 and 70-300mm ED lens at f/11. Shot on Fujichrome Velvia with a 4sec exposure

Remember that your film or digital camera can only see around +/-5 stops of EV and it is not uncommon for slot canyons to exhibit differences way beyond this. You will find that your graduated neutral density filters will be next to useless to equal out these differences. Therefore try to avoid areas of direct light and concentrate instead on compositions that are bathed in the reflected light. Find patterns that please your eye and work with these – looking directly above in the taller canyons will certainly help you to find interesting compositions. Generally including direct sunlight will burn out that area on your film or sensor – although there is nothing to say that sometimes that may well be what you are aiming for!

For 90% of photographers metering in canyons is going to be a breeze. My assumption here of course is that 90% of photographers are shooting digital – I recently read a forum entry which suggested that ‘spot meters are overrated’, and to a great extent I agree. With digital we can ‘chimp’ our shots and check that the exposure is where we want it. If the suggestion above, of limiting the dynamic range of your compositions, is taken then you can pretty much leave the meter on matrix, switch to aperture priority, take a shot and decide where you want the exposure to lie from there.

It will be apparent from both the histogram and your image preview if your chosen composition posseses to much dynamic range for your sensor and you will be able to frame and correct this as you wish.

Nikon D70 with Nikkor 12-24mm DX. Exposure f/16 at 1/4sec on ISO400

Of course for those (few!) of us still shooting film spot meters are an important tool in the slots. Heres the way I approached metering for most of my slides images, although of course there are many ways to bake the same cake. Initially decide on your compostion bearing in mind that you will be trying to limited dynamic range in most cases to what your film will be able to capture. Once you have framed your image reach for the spot meter and take your expsoure from the brightest area in your frame, the sandstone should provide a reasonable meduim tone. Dial in an exposure of –1.5 stops on the spot meter (which will become the ‘correct’ exposure for our camera) and then check the rest of your composition, anything that appears at –2 stops and beyond of this new exposure will record near black on high contrast slide film.

Deep shadows can be a great framing tool in the slot canyons but just beware not to fill too much of your frame with them. I would also always suggest bracketing as heavily as your pocket may allow. One final tip for film shooters – if you are in Page there is a lab which will process E6 film on a one hour service. If you have travelled this far to see the slots it may be worth considering having your film developed to make sure that you have the shot you wanted before leaving town.

Here is a typical slot canyon scene showing the different tones that can be revealed with different exposures. The images are Jpeg from Raw with no colour/curves or levels applied. I have included a small portion of canyon in the top left that is lit directly. Note how this small area progressivly burns out as the exposure is increased to reveal the details hidden in the reflected light. In this instance there is no exposure that will capture both the highlights and shadow details in the scene, even at EV-2 the directly lit area is already almost blown out and there is very little detail revealed elsewhere.

How to photograph the US Slot Canyons
Nikon D70 with Nikkor 12-24mm DX. Exposure f/16 and 8secs at ISO200.

In general be aware of how dusty slot canyons can be, check for dust on your lens before each and every shot – pay particular care when changing lenses in canyons on digital cameras. You may have little room to work in (I recall a time I saw a sign at the entrance to a slot advising that those with waists larger than 36in would be unable to proceed in a hundred yards!) so pay attention when moving around not to knock over your (or anyone else’s!) gear. In many canyons some climbing and scrambling will be involved and you may well have to wade through deep puddles of water. Some are also extremely narrow and taking a large camera bag may well hinder your movement into them – pack as light as you can.

Antelope canyon is a good starting point for your foray into the world of slot canyons, but remember that with a little effort and planning there are numerous other slots awaiting you. Each will offer a different photographic experience and the adventure of getting there and exploring it may well be half the fun. Whatever you decide to do, remember to stay safe.

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I made a trip to Lower and Upper Antelope Canyon this past October and your article really helped me prepare for the shoot. Thank you! Here's what I came back with:

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