Photographing Slot Canyons

Images of slot canyons represent one of the most fascinating corners of our planet, the American southwest. Sandstone, over millions of years has been eroded by the power of water, creating deep winding corridors. For anyone with an explorative spirit, slot canyons are a playground for every age. The two most iconic, and likely the most photogenic canyons in the world are within a 2 hour drive from each other, The Zion Narrows, and Antelope Canyon.

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My name is Seth Hamel, I am a professional landscape and adventure photographer working in the Zion National Park area. When I go into the narrows by myself or with clients, the start time isn’t until 10 am or so, depending on the time of year. Many of the clients that I guide through the narrows ask “Can we start earlier? I want to make sure I’m in there for the best light”. This is due to the fact that with typical landscape photography we want to get that early glowing light on the features of whatever we are photographing slot.

In slot canyons, the best light occurs mid-day, on cloudless sunny days. The best light is not direct sunlight hitting the walls of the canyon, but rather “reflected light”. Reflected light occurs when bright, harsh, direct sunlight hits a canyon wall and reflects that light onto another wall. This is the type of light that produces rich, saturated glowing colors in slot canyons. It is very important to keep even a peep of sky, or direct sunlight out of your photos, as this produces blown out areas of your image, and can produce a nasty “haze” near those areas. Naturally there are exceptions to this rule, but they are uncommon.

The Zion Narrows, and Antelope canyon are significantly different canyons. The Zion Narrows is the largest slot canyon in the world! Carved by the power of the Virgin River, the narrows is a canyon where you will be hiking in the river itself. Antelope canyon is a dry canyon unless there has been recent rainfall. Due to the narrowness of this canyon, and having a large water gathering area for water during the monsoon season, this canyon has been carved by powerful raging flash floods. Due to the differences in these canyons, camera settings can vary with each.

To obtain professional quality images, a tripod is required. As a general rule, setting your ISO to 100 will give you crisp, printable images. In canyons, typically you want to have the entire scene in focus, no blurring of the foreground or background (again this is a general rule). In order to obtain such depth, set your aperture to a higher number. F16, F18 or F22 are useful. From there, read your camera’s internal light meter and adjust your shutter speed in order to get the appropriate exposure. These settings are a very safe bet for Antelope Canyon.

The Zion Narrows presents situations where controlling your shutter speed is the 1st priority. Due to the beautiful flowing water in relation to this magnificent canyon, controlling what the flowing water looks like plays a major role in the artistic outcome of your image. Good shutter speeds range from 1/2 second to 1/10 second. This requires some experimentation with different speeds of water flow, and the effect you are hoping to achieve. After setting the shutter speed, I would adjust my aperture, and then the ISO. This can be a tricky balance. Having an experienced mentor in this situation is helpful.

Slot canyons are amazingly beautiful, awe inspiring and is a candy land for any level of photographer. Keep in mind, during rainy periods, slot canyons are very dangerous due to flash flooding. Be sure to do your research on flash flooding and weather conditions before you enter into these canyons. There have been numbers of fatalities in both of these canyons.

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