Labyrinths of Light – Slot Canyons of the Southwest
There are rare jewels hidden throughout Northern Arizona and Southern Utah called slot canyons. To my knowledge this beautiful and sacred phenomenon occurs nowhere else on Earth. These meandering labyrinths of light scream to be photographed; the trick is how to capture them as you see them.
Slot canyons are challenging to photograph since they are usually very dim dark places with occasional beams of light that shine down in laser like rays. A camera does not see, as much as we would like it to, the same way our eye sees. It sees mid-tones and the canyons are painted with a palette of very bright and very dark tones, this is what makes it kind of tricky to get a good exposure with the wide variation of tones.
My first trip to photograph a slot canyon was over 15 years ago, but one I will not soon forget, it was a magical and sacred trip for me. I had seen an image in a magazine of one of these “things”, at the time I did not know what “it” was called, I just knew that I had to find this amazing location and photograph it for myself. So the detective work began, mine you, this was well before the days of the internet and Google. I asked around and showed the picture I had pulled from the magazine and I got a few leads then “Bingo”, I saw another photo with a caption that read “somewhere outside of Page, Arizona”. I figured that the hard part was over all I had to do was get to Page and I should be able to find a slot canyon from there.
I added Page, Arizona to my list of stops on my annual summer whirlwind road trip. I lived in San Diego at the time so when I finally got out on the road I crammed as many photo opportunities and locations in as I could into the two weeks. I lost a few disgruntled travel companion along the way, “Slow down” “Can’t we stay here another day?” they would plead, I would reply “No, I have to get all of these photos shot before I go home”. So needless to say, traveling solo became the norm for me and I am quite alright with that. I had a strict itinerary and I ended up dropping more than one unhappy and tired travel companion at the airport when we reached a major city. I could see their eyes spinning in their head as they gathered their bags from the car and headed into the airport. I guess my warning that this would not be a leisurely tour wasn’t strong enough, “Only the hardy need apply”. I guess an indication that I was in a hurry was when I would clear their breakfast plates from under them and they weren’t even done yet! Hey, I’ve got places to go and people to see. Only have I learned over the years that good photos, photos with soul, take time and getting to know a place.
When I did get to Page I saw quite a few brochures and posters for slot canyon tours. Oh no, I thought someone else knows about these ‘things’. The word was just starting to circulate in the photo industry about ‘slots’ and I was in on the bottom floor. But the thought of having to go on a tour gave me the hee-bee-gee-bees!
The canyon that I wanted to photograph was called Antelope Canyon and it was on the Navajo Reservation, a permit or guide was needed so I had no choice. I called around and the tours were kind of pricey and on a photographer’s road trip budget ‘tours’ weren’t included. I made one more phone call and spoke to a real nice guy who was also a photographer and we struck a deal for the next day. It was a 3-mile hike or 4WD in to the canyon and I did not want to hike in lugging all of my equipment and my car did not have 4WD. My guide said he had a big beefy Suburban with AC and good stereo…SOLD…I was in!
Usually I am up at crack of dawn when I’m on the road to catch that great sunrise light. My guide said “Sleep in we don’t have to be in the canyon until around noon”. Yippee, I can get a bit more shuteye…NOT! Those of you who camp a lot know that the minute the sun starts its climb into the sky the whole world, in the campground anyway, wakes up. So much for that, I used my time wisely and got my little road warrior vehicle all straightened up and organized.
I met my guide and his beefy Suburban at 11:00 at the agreed upon location and I climbed in and off we went. We drove outside of town for about 15 minutes and stopped at a gate and a Navajo man and my guide exchanged a few words and he then opened the gate. In we drove, arriving at a vertical slit in a rock wall and I got out of the car and walked in, my first impression was that I felt like I was in a holy place, it was so beautiful. The temperature outside was in the high 90’s inside the Cathedral Room, as it was called, it was in the 70’s. My guide had told me to bring pants and a long sleeve shirt, good suggestion. It got cooler the further back into the slot you when.
I was in such awe of this amazing place that I just wandered back through the canyon running my hands along the smooth, cool sandstone walls. My guide motioned me over and said, “Wait until you see this, get your camera ready”. I got my camera (28-70mm lens on) out and put it on the tripod and he told me to focus on the spot of light that was in front of me on the ground and he stood to the side of me and threw some of the red sand over the hot spot. It was magical, a mystical beam of light appeared as if a flying saucer were over the canyon beaming its search light down, I was so struck by it that I forgot to shoot. So he did it over and over and I pushed the shutter button for as long as the beam lasted. I tried all sorts of speeds and exposures for this one and the best one was f/16 at 10 seconds. Bracket your exposures, repeat after me, “Bracketing is my friend”!
I found the best lens was my 28-70mm (or wider) although with a long lens (300mm) you can aim up and capture some of the very dramatic curves with the light reflecting off of them. Exposures varied from f/16 at 20 seconds to f/22 at a ½ second. Exposures certainly depend on the time of day that you are in the canyon, as the light is constantly changing.
My guide left me alone and said he would be back in a couple of hours. Now I could just wander and enjoy the beauty and solitude. I felt like I had to whisper while I was in the canyon, this particular canyon was very sacred to the Navajo and I did not want to be disrespectful. Was I wandering around in their church? Sure felt like it. I saw maybe one or two other photographers; I was here on a good day. My guide said he has seen the Cathedral Room with photographer’s tripod legs overlapping each other, especially in the late afternoon when the western light hits the entrance wall and bathes the entire room in a warm orange glow. So I guess the secret was out about the slots and they forgot to tell me.
Speaking of the Cathedral Room, that was our next stop. My guide had returned and said it was ‘show-time’. We made our way through twists and turns to the main room; it was alive with every color of orange you could imagine, so warm and inviting. The photo gods were smiling on me that day; we were the only people in the room which is a VERY rare occurrence – I felt like the luckiest girl in the world!
I wanted to get a shot of someone standing with a pack on in the middle of the room. I looked around to see who that ‘someone’ would be. I didn’t have much choice and no offense but I fit the model/victim profile better than my guide did. I set my camera up on my tripod again and got it all situated with the auto-timer on, since I was going to be the victim. My guide suggested that I meter off of the highlights on the wall and with his years of experience photographing these canyons I took his advice. I threw my camera pack on my back and pushed the shutter button and had 10 seconds to get into place and hold very still. My exposure was at 10-20 seconds so any movement would make my image blurry. I held my breath when I heard the shutter click. I did this over and over with backpack, without backpack, sitting, standing, jumping…you name it. “OK, I’m pooped we can go now” I said.
The light was fading fast as we walked out of the canyon. What a special day I had and I couldn’t wait until I saw my images (this was also before my DSLR days – I was still a film junkie). My guide was great and so helpful with tricky exposures. We climbed back into his beefy SUV and back to Page we went all the while I was chatting about the amazing day I had just experienced. I thanked him and we went our separate ways.
The images that I got back from the lab were better than I had ever imagined. I was so excited as I spilled each box onto the light table gasping and screaming as each colorful slide appeared. The fact that I experimented with different exposures and made sure to bracket made the all the difference in the world. I hope you get to experience this unique phenomenon some day, it was truly an awe-inspiring and life altering experience for me.
If you enjoyed this article, Get email updates (It’s Free)