In The Canyons

Experimenting in challenging conditions creates unique low-light shooting opportunities
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Kate Randall jumping into a pool of water.

During a lifetime pursuit of photography, you’re bound to say, at least a thousand times, “I can shoot better than that” and “I can improve on this photo.” It can be a struggle to keep things looking fresh, so I go back to my old photos to see where I can improve. Experimenting with different techniques and new technology can help to break into new realms. I tried this out recently in canyoning photography.

Canyoning is a fairly esoteric pursuit, but it takes you into some otherworldly places. In the U.S., the sport is called canyoneering and is concentrated in the sandstone canyons of the Colorado Plateau. Canyoning involves descending steep, water-carved slots where you encounter swims through pools of ice-cold water, rock climbing moves to descend short “drops” and technical rope skills for rappels at pour-overs; some rappels are as long as 300 feet. The canyoning environment is characterized by narrow, water-carved rock defiles that are sometimes so skinny and convoluted that little or no sunlight makes it to the canyon floor. Now imagine the challenges encountered trying to shoot photos in such an environment—pretty daunting, but not insurmountable.

Chris Knox walking through the cave system.

In the past, I’ve been fortunate enough to shoot canyoning for clients such as National Geographic, The North Face and Smithsonian. The Smithsonian assignment, a cover story I did in 2006, was significant for a couple of reasons. It was one of the last assignments I shot on film, and it was the last time I did any significant canyoning photography. Living in Sydney, I’ve discovered I’m only a short drive from the Blue Mountains, the canyoning center of Australia. In Australia, canyoning is popular, so I know I may be called to shoot some in the near future. But the canyons here are nothing like the canyons of the American Southwest. I needed to do some serious refiguring of my canyoning photo technique.

Looking through my old canyoning photos, I recognized that my canyoning people photography could use some improvement. The photos capture the environment nicely, but the shots lacked movement and action. In the film-only days, movement was impossible to capture in the near darkness of the canyons. But with the latest digital cameras and some tricked-out flash lighting, the possibilities for new photo techniques showing action were ripe. In good caving and canyoning photos, it can take hours to set up lighting and direct. My challenge was to shoot canyoning while on the move, with no photo or lighting “setups,” rehearsing shots or direction from me to repeat an action. My goal was to capture pure spontaneous, realistic action while achieving as much natural lighting as possible.

My first Australian technical canyoning was descending Tiger Snake Canyon in the Blue Mountains. We chose this canyon because it was winter in the Blues, and the canyon was reported to be not-too-wet, a term that really means not-too-dry.

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A subterranean adventure in Australia’s Blue Mountains presented unique challenges for Bill Hatcher and gave him the chance to flex some creative muscle as he worked out how to shoot and light in cramped quarters.

My objective in Tiger Snake Canyon was to capture all photos as handheld shots with no use of a tripod. To do this, I took advantage of the high ISO capability in my Nikon D300S and combined it with a NIKKOR 16-35mm ƒ/4 VR lens. I used the ISO dial to compensate for the low ambient light. Using a range from ISO 200 up to ISO 3200 allowed me four extra stops in the low light. I also used a Nikon SB-900 flash coupled with a medium Lastolite EzyBox softbox connected to the D300S by two TTL cords, which allowed me to place the light 12 feet from the camera. The softbox position was either handheld or set on the ground to the right or left side of the action. The flash was set to manual and preset at full power for an effective distance of 5 feet (I determined this setting earlier with my Minolta flash meter).

As I increased the ISO in darker parts of the canyon, I would decrease the power of the flash output. There was little natural light trickling down into the canyon, and as soon as a person tilted their head down, their face fell into impenetrable shadow. The position of the flash was critical. I purposely kept the flash at ground level so it would fill the shadows caused by the indirect overhead light. I used the softbox to match the soft canyon light and to give the flash better “wrap” around the subject with fewer distracting shadows from the helmet, ropes and splashing water. The shutter speed was determined by how fast or slow the action was happening, and what kind of action freezing or blur I was looking for.

For the photo of Kate Randall jumping into the pool, I set the flash on the ground to the right side of me out of the photo frame. The person in the foreground is illuminated by the overhead light and a touch of flash as the strobe illuminates the action at 1/60 sec. at ISO 1000 with the aperture set to ƒ/4.5. In the photo of Chris Knox, walking in the narrows with a rope slung over his shoulders, I placed the SB-900 on the ground with the head tilted up, and I panned the camera as I shot a burst of photos while he walked by. This photo was taken with the shutter set at 1/30 sec., to allow some motion blur. The ISO was 1000 and the aperture was ƒ/7.

On location, this system was fast and flexible, I was able to compress the softbox through the skinny bits, and the results were images I had never been able to capture before. Forced to come up with some new solutions for photographing in Australia’s dark green canyons has completely redefined the way I’ll shoot canyoning. More photos from Tiger Snake Canyon can be found on my website in the New Work section.

Bill Hatcher travels the world in search of adventure and good stories. Visit his website at

Bill Hatcher is a documentary photographer who shoots stories for National Geographic, Smithsonian and many other publications. He believes the best adventure photos are made when you’re an active participant in the story you’re shooting. Bill has been chasing stories about adventure sports,science and conservation around the world for nearly 30 years. His favorite mode of transport is by foot, bike, rope, packraft or skis.