Nearly every nature photographer dreams of visiting Antelope Canyon near Page, Arizona. These slot canyons offer so many amazing colors and compositions. It's kind of like a photographer's Disneyland. So, I added Antelope Canyon to my Desert Southwest Road Trip itinerary.
There are two popular slot canyons to visit near Page--Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon. Upper is most popular, although Lower is highly visited as well. Both are located on Navajo lands. Unfortunately, visiting either canyon can be a trying experience. The management is disorganized and the canyons are severely overcrowded. The dream quickly became a nightmare.
When I first arrived, I was disappointed that the canyons were closed due to the possibility of flash floods. After the long drive to Page, I didn't want to leave without seeing the canyons. Fortunately, the canyons opened again the next morning. I visited the Upper Antelope Canyon first.
Visitors are only permitted to use a tripod on the photography tour. As a tripod is critical for my photography, I decided to pay the extra amount to join that tour. I panicked a little when the first two tour companies that I visited in town informed me that the tours were sold out for the next month. However, several tour companies (too many) are granted access to the canyons--so it was just a matter of time before I found one with an opening.
I arrived at the Upper Antelope Canyon at 7 AM--an hour before it opens--to buy a ticket to that day's photography tour on site. I was charged an $8 Navajo Reservation entry fee just to pull into the lot to ask a question. I was told that there was one opening left for the tour. The charge was $80. The sign indicated that credit cards are accepted. As I started to hand over my credit card, I was told that it would be $80 cash--or no tour. To my relief, I had the $80 in cash--which isn't always the case. The tour was set for 11 AM.
I came back to the site at 10:30 AM. The first thing that I noticed was 20 people were being turned away from an earlier tour despite having reservations and having already paid. The tours were overbooked! I was told that they didn't have a guide for our photography tour, but that we could join the regular group--despite paying three times as much as everyone else! In the end, the guide made sure that we stayed in front of the regular group, could set up our tripods and had the first attempt for any pictures.
The Upper Antelope Canyon was a zoo. This slot canyon is only about 200 yards long--and there were hundreds of people there. One photographer later told me that I should have just lagged behind and captured some shots as the group moved ahead. That would have been impossible as there wasn't any gap between our group and the one behind us. It was packed shoulder to shoulder throughout the entire canyon!
Fortunately, our guide was able to hold back the crowds for a few seconds in order for us to get some photographs. He was acting like a left offensive guard in a football game--trying to buy the quarterback (or in this case the photographer) enough time. I actually had to treat this like I was shooting a sporting event. I increased my ISO so that I could reduce the shutter speed enough to have a better chance of getting a picture without people walking through the frame.
Here is one of my better images from the Upper Antelope Canyon:
While the Lower Antelope Canyon wasn't a picnic, it was far superior experience than the Upper Antelope Canyon. The photography tour started at 9 AM. For the first hour, it was far less crowded. We were able to take our time composing photographs. And, I was able to set my camera with the appropriate settings for landscape photography without worrying about long exposures. At about 10 AM, the Lower Antelope Canyon became just as crowded as the Upper Antelope Canyon was the day before and the photography was basically over. But, I was able to capture far more keepers in the Lower. Here are a couple of my favorites:
The Upper Antelope Canyon tour concentrated on light beams. During the summer months, the sun is better aligned with the slot and strong beams of light shine down onto the canyon floor. To help make the beams more visible, the guide continually throws handfuls of sand and dust into the air. Personally, I didn't like the high contrast and harsh light conditions very much. I much preferred the diffused, soft, pastel colors of the Lower Antelope Canyon for my photography.
Although both canyons will try one's patience, I prefer the Lower over the Upper!