Photographing Lower Antelope Canyon (Updated)
It wasn’t until the day before we wanted to go hike Antelope Canyon that I searched online for hike details. That was when I found out that you have to join a paid tour group to be able to enter and visit it– whether it’s Upper or Lower Antelope Canyon. The words “tour group” make my stomach turn sour. Commercialism is the first word that comes to mind and I instantly assume the experience will be cheapened (although in reality it’s more expensive).
I chatted with Jon McCartie (who also lives full-time on the road with his wife, Erin, and three kids), who had visited Antelope Canyon the day before, and I found out that they went to Lower Antelope Canyon instead of the more popular Upper Antelope Canyon. Jon said they chose Lower Antelope Canyon because it’s half the price of Upper Antelope Canyon ($40 vs. $20, not including the $8/person Navajo permit fee) and a friend of his who had hiked both said that Lower is just as good. In fact, Lower Antelope Canyon is longer, has more natural light, and because it’s not as popular as Upper it’s potentially not as crowded.
As someone who was eager to photograph Antelope Canyon, I was initially conflicted which one to go to. But after reading a variety of photography sites online, I found out that the main difference between the two was the way the sun lights up the canyon: Upper Antelope Canyon is famous for the rays of light that fall into it. But those sought after beams of light weren’t guaranteed to shine into the canyon while we’re in there. Upper Antelope Canyon is also darker than Lower, but none of the tour companies allow guests to bring tripods or monopods (it slows down the tour). The only way you can bring those is if you join the Photographer’s Tour, which is 2 hours long rather than the standard 1 hour 15 minute tour, and much more expensive. The cheapness in me won and we decided to go with Lower Antelope Canyon.
Antelope Canyon (both upper and lower) is located on Navajo land and there are a variety of companies that lead tours for them. There are two companies to choose from for Lower – Ken’s Guided Tour and Dixie Ellis' Lower Antelope Canyon Tours. From looking on their websites, everything they offer is identical. We went with Ken’s Tour because that’s who Jon went with. I called one of them asking what times were the best times to tour the canyon for photography – I was told anywhere between 10:30 AM – 1:30 PM. Because Lower Antelope Canyon is deep and skinny, you want the high noon sunlight to brighten the canyon as much as possible. The colors and shadows inside the canyon change depending on the light, but since I was going to shoot everything handheld I wanted the canyon to be as bright as possible. We chose the 11 AM time slot.
Unlike tours for Upper Antelope Canyon where guests meets at the store location in town and get shuttled to the canyon, we drove to Lower Antelope Canyon trailhead where the two tour companies had buildings on-site. Ken’s Tour offers a tour every 20 minutes from 8:30 AM – 4:30 PM. There are three groups of 15 people that leave at the same time. My fear of it feeling really crowded inside the canyon with that many people (not to mention the people from the other tour company) never materialized because the tour guide did a fairly good job keeping individual groups away from one another. The natural shape of the canyon also helped because it’s so tight and twisty that most of the time I could only see a handful of the people in our group. While the tour guide kept everyone moving, the pace wasn’t fast because everyone in the group was taking photos, and I was able to get most of the shots I wanted with the expectations I had. At times it was definitely too dark for me to be able to steadily hold my camera, but for the most part, the photos are good enough for what I paid for. I braced a lot against the rock walls to steady myself for the shots. Ideally I’d want unlimited time in the canyon so I could take my time, with or without a tripod, to find the perfect light and spots. Jerud joked that he’s glad there was a time limit or else he’d never get me out.
As we walked towards the stairs into the canyon, our tour guide stopped and asked what kind of phone everyone has. Then told everyone how to change the settings in their camera to get the best photos (example: iPhone is the bottom right circular Venn diagram and select “Chrome”). He did the same with DSLRs, which only one person besides me had. Soon I realized what the tour companies were selling (at least ours) – photos. Most people want to return home from vacation with a slew of photos to share with friends, to prove they were there, and to reminisce with years from now. Everyone wants to take incredible photos - me included - to have that photo that inspires a jaw-dropping “wow” response. So the guides help visitors get that. The guides, along with the technology of the cell phone cameras, help visitors photograph a difficult subject. But, depending on your taste in photography, be wary. The “Chrome” setting will beautify your photographs, but at times it will falsify them. It likes to bring out the color purple, which isn’t actually visible in the canyon.
While our guide never shared any knowledge about the canyon, geological or historical tidbits, he did point out to everyone in our group the angle they would want to take the photograph in a certain spots inside the canyon. A few times he would take the camera from everyone, me included, and take the shot for each of us, one by one as we walked towards him. I let him because I was curious to see what he was photographing for everyone. But I also made a note of the two photos that were taken by him. It threw me off to see him do this. I wasn’t expecting this and it made the whole experience feel a lot more commercialized than just paying an entrance fee and going about my business behind my camera.
I saw a Photography Tour in the canyon while we were there and the guide seemed to also being helping the photographers a lot – the instances I saw he pointed out a specific ledge she should put her tripod on for a shot. Assistance is great, but assistance like that takes away the authenticity of photography. For me a large part of the reward is finding and getting the shot on my own. I don’t want to walk out of the canyon with the same shot as everyone before me and after me. Yes, we all want to be unique snowflakes and cornflakes. Keep in mind that just because you pay extra for the Photography Tour doesn't mean all the other tourists disappear. You will still have to figure out how to shoot around all the people if you want other angles of the canyon than upwards.
Photography aside, Lower Antelope Canyon was magnificent. I hate to say it but it’s worth the money to go see it. Walking through the canyon was a jaw-dropping experience. We’ve traveled to a lot of places this past year and nature is constantly upping her game.
That being said, check out a reader's comment below - his experience was unfortunately a bit different from ours. Keep in mind that this is a commercial tour where the companies are focused on making as much money as possible which means cramming as many people into the canyon as possible. It seems like we might have gotten lucky because it wasn't jam-packed when we visited.
Tips (Or Just Info):
- I used a Nikon D5300 with a 18mm - 200mm f/3.5-5.6 lens.
- My shots were taken at 2500 ISO because it was so dark in there. Even then, my shutter speed was around 1/30 seconds or lower.
- I braced against the canyon walls a lot to steady my hands. A couple of times I sat on the ground and leaned against Jerud's legs to get shots.
- Remember to clear out your memory card before arriving.
- Also remember to have a fully charged battery pack (or bring a back up).
- Some of the websites I read suggested putting your camera inside a plastic bag to protect it against dust that gets kicked up. I brought one but didn't use it because it wasn't too dusty.
- Bring a lens cleaner of some sort in case your lens gets dusty.
- Hang out in the middle or end of the pack so you can take your time photographing. Or hang out by a family with small kids because they are usually slower.
- I saw an Instagram post about Lower Antelope Canyon recently (Oct 11, 2016) and the person said they experienced an hour long wait to get into the canyon! We didn't experience any kind of a wait when we visited the canyon.
We visited Lower Antelope Canyon on April 19, 2016.