It is kind of depressing that the only articles online about photographing slot canyons are made by those who have only visited one or two… Lower and Upper Antelope Canyon. They being the most photogenic canyons, that is probably the reason why. But frankly, those canyons lie. Not all slot canyons are created equally and most slot canyons are not naturally beautiful from every angle. In fact, most slot canyons are not terribly photogenic. I know because I have visited a couple dozen now. There are a few things that combine together to make the best slot canyon to photograph.
Hopefully, this article will answer those questions. This is especially true since it is now slot canyon season until the monsoons kick in. When that happens, the season turns into “get killed in a canyon” season. So with that sobering reminder, let's begin with not dying.
1- Don't Die
I want this to start off sobering for you in other parts of the country. I mean to be deadly serious about this. This is a list of the dead or near escapes from recent flash floods in slot canyons.
- 7 dead in keyhole canyon zion. -I had friends who were supposed to be in a canyon this day, they didn't go because of the forecast. I spoke with the rangers who recovered the bodies. Not fun.
- Group decides to stay on high ground instead of going down canyon, wise decision.
- People stuck in Buckskin and water pours in. They got out.
- Group of Hikers die in Egypt Slot Canyon.
Every slot canyon I have ever entered into has made me nervous. Slot canyons are such good places to die. It seems every year I hear about another group that barely escapes or does not. The best way to prevent death is simply to check weather and don't go if there is a chance of rain. It might kill your trip, but being dead sucks a lot more. I have a personal story with this now too. I was descending a canyon here in Zion and on the last repel and a huge lightning bolt struck right above us. You have never felt thunder until it echoes through a slot canyon and reverberates in your chest. Then it began to rain on us. Luckily we were in a wide section of canyon with escape routes, but if we had been back one rappel I would have been freaking out. In another instant,I was down the Escalante River. We could hear the thunder in the distance, but we were not being rained on. A few hours later when the first pulse of water came down, it warned us of the debris wall coming just seconds behind it. Flash floods kill.
So how not to die. Like I said check weather. Don't go if there is rain in the area or the drainage. Look at google earth and track where the canyon drains from and check those regions rain fall predictions. The other thing that can be done is not go in a slot canyon from July to the end of September. Those are when the monsoons are kicking into high gear around here. I have generally sworn off canyons during those months.
Tell people where you are going is a great way to keep yourself from dying too. Ever heard of 127 hours. That guy didn't tell anyone and he had to cut his arm off to get himself out of the canyon. Tell people where you are going so if you don't show up at the right time, they can begin looking for you asap.
Research your canyon is an essential tool as well. Is it technical or not. Has anyone been in it recently to see if any debris walls have formed? Will you have to get wet? Will you be swimming? There were a couple hikers many years ago that froze to death in a pothole because they got too cold to get out. Don't go into a canyon beyond your technical abilities.
Be prepared before you enter a slot canyon and you will have a great time. Now that I have scared you from going into a slot canyon, let's talk about how to photograph one.
2-Time of Day
Every slot canyon is different and the lighting results change by the minute. In general, though early morning does not produce the best coloration in slot canyons. There are a few exceptions to this and that is, of course, Antelope Canyon. Antelope looks good always. That is why it cheats. But as you explore other slot canyons you will find that from 10-2 PM often produces great conditions where warm canyon glow occurs with the occasional light beam as well.
If you ever read my Box Canyon Article on this site you will see similar iterations, but it usually has a wider range of good lighting conditions, with the middle of the day being frankly the worse for good light.
Reflected light, canyon glow, desert glow, whatever else you want to call it. When you think of beautiful slot canyon images most people are thinking about great lighting conditions that produce this wonderful canyon glow from around a corner/a swirly wall. Canyon glow occurs where light strikes one side of the canyon and reflects warm light onto another portion of the canyon. A couple notes about this. Because the dynamic range within a canyon can be so extreme, that photographing of direct light hitting the canyon wall is not advised. Also avoiding any direct view to the sky is helpful as well. The reflected light works best near the top of the canyon, but depending on how the light is working its way down the canyon you can have great light at any point.
So your job in a slot canyon is looking for this.
4- Narrow Canyons Make Better Light.
There is a relationship between narrowness and how well canyon glow function. Narrower canyons often produce the best glow because as the reflected light bounces off one wall onto the other it does not have a long time to dissipate. Fun fact about the property of light it has an inverse square law applied to it. So the farther it is from its source it reduces exponentially in brightness. This is why Zebra Slot is so famous because of its formation and because it is really narrow and frankly has a perfect reflection wall to cast beautiful light across most of its photogenic section.
The other thing about narrow canyons is that they are darker. When a canyon is darker, the bright warm reflected light walls become more prominent. That is why antelope canyon is so nice because the top of it is very narrow but the base is wide. This causes the light to be reduced dramatically but also creates a dark space below so when the light does penetrate it has an area to work with.
5-How Shafts of Light Work
I know a lot of people are in slot canyons to photograph those cool light beams. I know I am. I also now know what to look for when I enter a canyon to get them, but it does not mean I am successful at actually photographing them. So how do you photograph a light beam? First and foremost you can't photograph a light beam unless you have some help from dust. Literally, if you point your camera at a light beam, nothing happens. So in order to get a light beam, you have to throw some dust into the light shaft. This usually takes assistance, so having a buddy along makes a world of difference to actually get these shots.
To get the best results throw sand in it a couple of times and see how it is being affected by wind and other factors. Use a trigger if you can and don't have a two-second delayed timer. Having a bit of precision makes a world of difference.
How dark a canyon makes or breaks light shafts as well. If you are in a shallow canyon (not deep) causing the canyon to not be particularly dark, the light shafts are not prominent enough. They just won't work. Darker canyons simply make better images.
The way to discover light shafts is to be in the canyon around high noon when the canyon is completely lit. Travel around it and see how the light might be pinched into shafts and see if the area will work out well for a composition. Sometimes that is not possible as the canyon requires upclimbing and other technical maneuvers (like the image below) and more often than not you just get lucky. But being in the canyon around noon or a few hours before or after increases your luck of a good light shaft.
Some Final Thoughts
I did not mention gear for this. I guess I could do that here. Use a tripod. A wide-angle zoom lens is a must as it prevents having to switch lenses which can introduce dust into your camera as slot canyons are dusty. Other than that you are fine. Polarizers may come in handy in wet canyons, but more often than not they don't improve your images.
Be prepared to focus stack to get the best results if necessary.
Have you ever photographed a slot canyon before? If so share your experience. If you have barely survived a slot canyon before, share yours as well. I have a few close calls that were not in this article as well if you ever want to hear them just ask.