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Finding Color in the Shadows

Last week I braved the 100+ degree heat of the Arizona desert to photograph a popular tourist attraction known as Antelope Canyon. Antelope Canyon is a narrow slot canyon that has been cleverly popularized by the Navajo Native American tribe whose land it resides on. On the outset, it appears a photographers worst nightmare – tours departing every half-hour that are large in size and move much too quickly for a nature photographer, however the Navajo rejoicingly realize this is a shutterbugs paradise and give 4-hour per day “photographer passes” for those requesting them allowing you unabated free reign to work your lenses. For an extra fee, you can have a private guide, too. I’d love to see this type of emphasis and efficiency modeled in our national parks.

One of the trickiest aspects of this environment is working in a closed space. Most of the time both sides of the canyon walls are only inches from your shoulders and tripod legs can barely extend wide enough to keep the camera balanced (be careful not to put the legs on the rock walls or it can damage them). The other great challenge is that reflected light is your subject matter. Direct spots from the sun on the canyon walls gets easily blown out so you have to find the subtle gradients, shape and line that fall in the shadows. Areas directly across from a spot of direct sun tend to the be the most vivid.
Despite the close-quarters work, I found myself regularly going to a medium or telephoto lens. This allowed me to compress the shifting, wave-like patterns in the rock and focus on just the details. Only in the more cavernous areas did I switch up to a wide angle lens to give a sense of scale. Most exposures were long – 15 or 30 seconds which meant I had to find a way to make the tripod work for me thus limiting even more of my options for good imagery.
In the end though, the color of the rock was nothing short of stunning as it lived up to it’s reputation as a great photography spot. The shadows reflected the sunlight in hues of deep purple gradually smoothing out into pinks and magentas with flares of fire-orange streaks.