Slot canyons are among the Southwest's most iconic photographic subjects, but they require proper preparation and attention to the potential hazards
By James Kay
Some of the most remote canyons on the Colorado Plateau are found in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. With large dryfalls upstream and downstream of this point, there was no evidence the canyon had been explored prior to Kay‚’s trip. Without a tripod, Kay propped his elbows on his knees and shot at 1/8 sec. Nikon N90s, 24mm Nikkor, Fujich
Slot Canyon Compositions
When I look for photographic compositions along the way, those icy pools of water can greatly enhance a composition by providing beautiful reflections of the sculpted walls above. And forget that rule of getting up early for first light or waiting for the low-angle light of dusk; the best time to photograph along the bottom of these narrow canyons is at midday, when the sun angle is high. This high-angle light penetrates deep into the slots and illuminates sections of red canyon walls, which casts a warm glow on the sensuous swirls of sculpted sandstone.
This kind of lighting creates very high-contrast situations, which you’ll need to deal with carefully to avoid blowing out highlights or having dark areas lose all detail. In order to minimize the effects of these extreme contrast levels, I normally avoid including any portion of direct sunlit canyon wall in the composition and instead only include the walls lit by the glow of warm reflected light. The exception to this would be when the sunlit area represents a very small portion of the overall composition, say, perhaps less than 5%. Otherwise, I try to keep the highlights at less than three stops above the midtones in order to retain detail. To reduce color noise in the dark areas when shooting digital, I use the lowest possible ISO rating, preferably in the range of ISO 100 to 200.
Adventure photography is one part creative vision, one part planning and organization. Be sure your gear is easy to secure and access. Above: Canyoneers hike along a tributary of the Escalante River, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument, Utah.
I can’t overemphasize the serious nature of traversing the length of these narrow canyons. Due to difficult obstacles along the way, it once took us six hours to negotiate a quarter-mile section of canyon. Search-and-rescue teams are constantly pulling people out of these slots, and many people have lost their lives over the years from flash floods or hypothermia. You’ll also notice that I’ve used the pronoun "we" to describe my canyoneering trips. With all the potential hazards along the way, I’d never consider descending into one of these canyons without at least one other person.
On more than one occasion, I’ve passed by opportunities to make photographs due either to sheer exhaustion or the logistical problems of setting up a shot in very difficult conditions. On the other hand, I’ve also encountered some of the most beautiful light-bathed scenes I’ve ever photographed. Knowing that some of these locations have never been seen before only enhances the sense of discovery as I round each bend in the canyon wall.
Gear For Getting The Shot
A canyoneer rappels over a dryfall in a remote canyon in Cedar Mesa, Utah. Nikon N90s, 50mm Nikkor, 35mm Nikkor, Fujichrome Velvia
Due to the physical difficulties of negotiating these canyons, I keep my camera gear to a minimum. For the most arduous slots, I’ll leave my bulky medium-format setup at home and instead take a small 35mm body along with three lenses—a 24mm, 35mm and 50mm. These wide-angle lenses work best in the narrow confines of the canyons. This equipment all fits in a small fanny pack, which I slip into an abrasion-resistant waterproof river bag for the water sections. The constant abrasion of scraping along the sides of these narrow slots can shred a backpack or punch holes right through the waterproof river bag protecting my camera gear. To reduce this risk of soaking my camera, I normally carry an extra river bag as a backup.
I strap a small carbon-fiber tripod with its lightweight Acratech ballhead to the side of my pack after tightly wrapping it with closed-cell foam to prevent damage as I scrape through the slot. In one situation where the tripod was too much to carry, I had success exposing a 24mm lens at 1/8 sec. with my elbows resting on my knees while pressing the shutter release button. The new image-stabilization lenses coupled with adjustable ISO settings in digital cameras may reduce the need for a tripod. For metering light, I use the camera’s built-in spot meter.