Photography in Slot Canyons
& Photos By Cheyenne Rouse
There are rare jewels hidden throughout northern Arizona and southern Utah called slot canyons. To my knowledge this beautiful and sacred phenomenon occurs in very few other places 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. Film does not see, as much as we would like it to, the same way our eyes see. It sees mid-tones, and the canyons are painted with a palette of very bright and very dark tones; this is what makes it tricky to get a good exposure with the wide variation of tones.
My first trip to photograph a slot canyon was several years ago, but one I will not soon forget. It was magical and sacred to me. I had seen an image in a magazine showing one of these things. At the time I did not know what they were called, I just knew that I had to find this location and photograph it for myself. So the detective work began. 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 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 as I could into my trips. I lost a few travel partners. "Slow down, can't we stay here another day?" they would say. I would reply, "No, I have to get all of these pictures shot before I go home."
So, traveling alone became the norm for me. I had a strict itinerary and I ended up dropping more than one unhappy and tired travel partner 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 wasn't strong enough, Only the hardy need apply. I guess an indication that I was in too much of hurry was when I would clear their breakfast plates from under them and they weren't even done yet! Hey, Ive got places to go and people to see. Only over the years have I learned that good pictures 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.
The slot I wanted to photograph is called Antelope Canyon and it is on the Navajo Reservation, so a permit or guide is needed. I called around and the tours were kind of pricey. On my photographers 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 ride into the canyon. 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, so I figured this was gonna be fun!
Usually I am up at crack of dawn when on the road to catch that great sunrise shot. 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 road warrior vehicle all straightened up and organized.
I met my guide and his Suburban at 11:00 at the agreed upon location; I climbed in and off we went. We drove outside of town for about 15 minutes and stopped at a gate where a Navajo man and my guide exchanged a few words before he opened the gate. In we drove, arriving at a vertical slit in a rock wall.
Walking in, my first impression was that I was in a holy place, it was so beautiful. The temperature outside was in the high '90s. When we got inside the Cathedral Room, as it was called, it was in the '70s. My guide had told me to bring pants and a long sleeve shirt. Good suggestions. It got cooler the further back into the slot we went.
I was in such awe of this amazing place that I just wandered back through the canyon, running my hands along the soft, cool sandstone walls. My guide motioned me over and said, "Wait until you see this." I got my camera (28-70 mm lens) out and put it on the tripod and he told me to focus on a spot of light that was in front of me on the ground. Then he stood to the side 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 was over the canyon beaming its searchlight 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. When in doubt, bracket your exposures. Remember, film is cheap. Coming back to the slot is not.
I use Fuji Sensia 100 ASA almost exclusively and was very happy with the results. I am sure Velvia would have done a very nice job but most of my shots are of action sports so I need that extra stop on my film. I found the best lens was my 28-70mm although with a long lens (300 mm) 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 half 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 is very sacred to the Navajo people 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 there on a good day. My guide said he has seen the Cathedral Room with photographers 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.
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 I fit the model/victim profile better than he did. So I set my camera 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 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 exposures were 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 to see my images. 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 all the difference in the world Remember, film is cheap so shoot a lot of it!