Slot Canyon Photography

How to prepare for shooting excursions to these iconic features of the Southwest’s Colorado Plateau
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Slot canyons are on every nature photographer's "must-photograph" list. While getting into some of the canyons is relatively easy, safety is a key concern, and you always need to take care that you have the proper permissions since many slot canyons aren't on public land. Above: Upper Antelope Canyon on Navajo land, near Page, Arizona.

Antelope, Little Wild Horse, Peekaboo, Secret. The Colorado Plateau region of the southwestern United States is home to one of the most interesting and photogenic features in the natural world, the slot canyon. The plateau has captured the imagination of thousands of photographers and geologists alike, with its weathered and exposed rock formations, which were sculpted, twisted and cut into rock layers millions of years old to only hundreds of years old. But, for us, it's the narrow and often deep canyons that cut into the various layers of sandstone that provide an adventure and photographic opportunities that are second to none. We've been hiking and photographing slot canyons for many years, spending weeks each year in the Colorado Plateau region.


Secret Canyon, Navajo land, near Page, Arizona.

Each slot canyon is quite different and beautiful from any other, and the various areas of the Colorado Plateau have slot canyons that are unique to that region and as different as every snowflake that falls. Formed from the violent rains and winds that pummel these areas year after year, slot canyons can be only a few feet deep to hundreds of feet deep, and from 30 yards long to as much as 21 miles long. (Buckskin Gulch in northern Arizona is touted as the longest slot canyon in the world.) Some are so narrow that you have to slide sideways and sometimes crawl through their floors, while others can be 50 feet wide. Slot canyons also sport various colors, from gray, orange, red, yellow, green and white, based on the sandstone and rock formations that they were cut from, with their beauty being unmatched in nature.

The most photogenic slot canyons are located in central and southern Utah, and northern Arizona. Various regions in Utah such as the San Rafael Swell, the Robbers Roost area, the Grand Staircase-Escalante and Lake Powell, as well as northern Arizona, contain the most beautiful slot canyons, but also the most challenging to reach. Slot canyon exploration in Utah usually requires no special permits, while most of northern Arizona is Navajo land and requires either a permit or a guide to enter.

Types Of Slot Canyons
There are two categories of slot canyons: technical and nontechnical. Technical slot canyons require full canyoneering gear such as harnesses, carabiners, rope, helmets and other items needed for rappelling and climbing. (It's important to take a class first!) Nontechnical slot canyons are those you can explore without the need for most gear, and are considered much easier and simpler to access. There are many slots that do require technical gear to explore, but there are also many that don't and are quite beautiful. All, however, require extensive hiking and sometimes scrambling, chimneying and bridging over narrow floors, debris from floods and water obstacles. Some technical slot canyons may require rappelling 100 feet down or more, and may have high dry falls to rappel down.

Taking your gear, including camera equipment and tripods, may be challenging in technical canyons. However, once on the canyon floor, things typically get easier. For nontechnical slots, you can often follow a wider canyon upstream until it narrows into a slot. These are usually simple to explore and don't require the technical gear for complex canyons, leaving you more options to carry camera equipment and tripods. Michael Kelsey has written several books on the various slot canyons in the Colorado Plateau, including how to explore them and their locations. His books are fantastic!


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Prepping For Your Hike
The trek to a slot canyon is half the fun. Some you can drive almost to the entrance, while others may require hiking several miles each way. A four-wheel-drive vehicle can be quite helpful and, at times, it's a necessity, depending on the area the slot canyon is located in. Prior research of the area of travel is necessary and can mean a successful trip versus a trip that will have to be postponed. Weather certainly also can be a deciding factor, even with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, as sandstone can quickly become "slick rock" after a good rain.

Make sure you carry enough drinking water for the distance and time you'll be hiking. Water not only is important in the summer months due to high temps, but the fall can zap your fluids, as well. Various high-protein snacks are useful while hiking, too. We carry a handheld GPS to guide us to the canyon we're searching for, and it safely gets us back to our vehicle should it be dark upon our return. Reptiles and especially rattlesnakes are often encountered, so the need for a small first-aid kit is essential.

As mentioned, always check the current weather conditions for the day of your trek into a slot canyon. Be prepared and know the weather conditions, as rains as far as 50 miles away can come rushing down a slot canyon and will sweep away anything in its path. Never enter a slot canyon if rain is forecast in the area. Your life may depend on it!


Upper Antelope Canyon, Navajo land, near Page, Arizona.

Key Camera Gear To Bring
We both carry a wide variety, but compact amount of equipment when exploring and photographing slot canyons. We each use a Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLR with quality zooms and wide-angle lenses for unique shots. Several filters, such as a circular polarizer, warming, color enhancing and graduated ND filters, can be useful. A sturdy tripod is a necessity, and a remote is helpful in low light where longer exposures are necessary. You can often wedge the tripod legs against the walls to provide a steady support for those stunning longer exposure images. You also can boost the ISO, but beware of going too high or you'll lose the smooth look in the rock striations because of the increased noise (graininess). Know your camera's limitations and set your ISO accordingly.

A good cleaning kit is of utmost importance because your lens and sensor will get dirty in a slot canyon due to wind blowing dust and sand. Try to change lenses as little as possible, and protect your camera when you do change lenses. If you avoid changing lenses entirely, you can prevent a dirty sensor, but there's no way to keep dust off your lens or filter. Sand and dirt are abrasive, so never use a terry cloth or an old T-shirt to clean your lenses and filters. Always blow them off before applying any cleaning material to prevent scratching.

Photography In Slot Canyons
Here's what you've been waiting and working for! Finally, after the preparation and the hike, you're here, inside the slot and ready for photography. There are many different features in a slot canyon that are worthy to photograph. The important thing is to look around, letting your eyes adjust to the various colors that are present, but may not be so easily picked up with the naked eye. The canyon walls will expose their colors readily once you've taken that first shot. It's from that moment on that you'll become inspired to look for the depth of colors and how they interact with the canyon walls and light from above.


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GEAR EXAMPLES: Key gear choices for slot canyon photography include a sturdy tripod with a lot of available leg adjustments and polarizers like this B+W circular polarizer and warm-tone polarizer. Roger and Caryn Hill use Canon EOS 5D Mark II DSLRs.

Speaking of light from above, the best time for shooting these slot canyons is either in early morning or late afternoon. Direct noontime sunlight shining down into a slot canyon won't produce the desired "glow" that's often sought after with each shot. Direct lighting also will cause the reds, purples and oranges to be washed out and/or look "dirty."

We both have unique things we like to look for in a slot canyon. Roger likes the wider shots, with occasional zooming in and looking up as light bounces off walls and illuminates the canyon and its features. Caryn loves to walk ahead, stop and then look behind her, as she often gets a totally different perspective of the canyon that way. She also enjoys looking for those unique, smaller features and details that are often found in slot canyons. The canyon colors, however, are always the main feature we both try and incorporate into our shots. Slot canyons are full of unusual and beautiful photographic opportunities, and it's always important to search every nook and cranny of the canyon for those places that typically don't catch your eye at first glance.

It's important to be in tune with your DSLR's light meter, as well. You'll find yourself constantly adjusting white balance, exposure, aperture and ISO throughout the canyon. For the sake of simplicity, a lot of photographers will set their white balance on the Cloudy setting. That will allow the deep oranges and reds to appear (based on color temperature). Sometimes by setting your white balance on auto, it will allow your shot to be a bit cooler, and some of the purples and greens will show up. If you manually set your white balance, you can adjust the temperature to fit your needs and style. An aperture of ƒ/4 (on aperture priority) and ISO around 400 allows the shutter speed to be fast enough to render a sharp photo with a tripod. Play with your settings until you find the results you're looking for. We find that the DSLR's Live View feature helps tremendously, as any adjustment we make shows up in the viewfinder even before we take the photo.

Also, we've seen some photographers create HDR images in a slot canyon with as many as nine images composited into one shot. This allows the textures and colors to really stand out. HDR can be overdone, but it's a powerful tool for places like the slot canyons where the contrast range typically exceeds the sensor's capabilities by such a wide margin. Moderation is key to using HDR.

Be Prepared
By following a few simple safety and photography rules, you can make your adventures in slot canyons both rewarding and fun, and can come away with photographs that you'll treasure for a lifetime. Pay attention to conditions, consult with guides and locals, and always pack your gear so you're prepared for each different adventure.

Roger and Caryn Hill run various tours in the Southwest. Learn about their tours and see more of their photography at www.southwestphotographytours.com.

1 Comment

    Thanks Roger and Caryn for sharing with us some of your secrets to great slot canyon photography! By the way, did you know that Roger and Caryn run a storm chasing company called Silver Lining Tours and are also excellent severe weather photographers? Check em out!

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