Creating Artistic Landscape Photographs: Upper Antelope Canyon Inspirations – Part 2
After finding Lower Antelope Canyon it took me another year to discover Upper Antelope. I knew there was another slot canyon in the Page area, one different from Lower Antelope because I had seen photographs that could not have been taken in Lower. These photographs depicted a taller and darker slot canyon, one with rock formations different from Lower Antelope. However, I had no idea where it was. The reason again was the lack of visual clues when looking at the landscape from the road. While Lower Antelope is challenging to find because it is a crack in the ground only visible from a few feet away, Upper Antelope is hard to find because it is located three miles up the wide and sandy Antelope Canyon wash. From the paved road, there is no indication that one of the most amazing photographic locations is nearby. All one can see is a wide sandy wash that leads North towards distant mesas.
It took meeting another photographer to venture up that wash in search of Upper Antelope. He had heard of it and had a rough idea of its location. We decided to look for it together. The main problem was the sandy wash in which we had to drive for an unknown number of miles. The sand was deep and no one had driven in it recently making the sand unpacked and loose. It was the perfect recipe to get stuck. To make things worse I did not have four-wheel drive which would have facilitated our venture although four-wheel drive trucks, Navajo trucks that is, got stuck too.
We tried to find a way up the wash but we soon got stuck in the sand. We found flat wooden boards in the wash and managed to get the truck un-stuck by placing them under the rear wheels. However, we knew that it was only a matter of time until we got stuck again. We did not want to dig the truck out of the sand a second time so we drove back to the paved road and left the truck there.
Unable to reach Upper Antelope Canyon by truck we decided to hike up to it. Hiking several miles up a sandy wash in the middle of the summer is challenging. It is hot, there is no shade and the sand fights you every step of the way. It was hard work but we did not care. We wanted to find Upper Antelope. Our motivation was the images we had seen, images that were waiting for us somewhere upstream in a slot canyon.
We eventually reached the canyon after a long, dry, and hot hike. Once there we encountered a completely new photographic environment. While Lower Antelope is accessed by climbing up or down into it, Upper Antelope is accessed by simply walking into the slot canyon. The ground is level, the only elevation being the slight slope of the sandy floor, something hardly noticeable when one walks through the canyon but a normal aspect of a wash because the downward slope is necessary for the water to drain through during rainstorms.
We also found ourselves face to face with our first light shaft. I should say ‘spot of light on the floor rather than light shaft because back then we did not know that slot canyon light shafts are invisible unless the light is diffracted onto sand particles in the air. There was no wind on that day, and therefore no sand blowing in the air, so all we could see was a bright spot of light on the sandy floor. I was using a Hasselblad V at the time, having upgraded my gear from 35 mm, and we photographed the spot of light with passion, me with medium format and my companion with 35 mm.
We never thought of throwing sand in the air to reveal the light shaft, something shocking now that this practice has become commonplace. It is so popular that today Navajo guides carry a plastic shovel to throw sand and reveal the light shafts of Upper Antelope. However back in the day, this trick of the trade was not known and on this first visit we missed out on one of the wonders of Upper Antelope. In fact, it took me a couple of years to learn that sand floating in mid-air made light shafts visible. I found out about it by climbing down into a Kiva in Montezuma Creek, on a summer day at noon, with the sun directly overhead. As I walked around the small underground chamber I kicked up some sand and when I looked up towards the opening of the Kiva I saw a light shaft reaching down, parallel to the ladder. It was an aha moment. As I photographed it I realized that kicking up sand in Upper Antelope would create the same phenomena. I did so on my next visit to Antelope, creating the first of my Antelope Canyon light shaft photographs, which I titled ‘Upper Antelope Canyon Light Dance.’ This image was created in 1998.
By then the Navajo family who owns the grazing rights for the Upper Antelope Canyon area had started offering tours to the canyon. While this meant having to pay a small fee and being accompanied by a Navajo guide, it also meant being driven in a four-wheel-drive truck with huge tires and high clearance, a vehicle unlikely to get stuck in the sand.
Over the coming years, I took many guided tours to Upper Antelope Canyon. I became friends with Dalvin Etsitty who was in charge of the tour operation, occasionally hiring him for an all-day touring so that he could show me the many other canyons located North and West of Upper Antelope. Dalvin knew every acre of the Antelope Canyon drainage having grown up herding sheep in this place. He wanted to share the beauty of this location with visitors and he knew that photography was one of the most powerful ways of achieving this. On one occasion I remember him telling me ‘make it famous Alain!’ while I was photographing Upper Antelope.
I learned a lot from Dalvin and from the other Navajo guides that accompanied me in the slot canyons of the Antelope drainage. Even though they were not photographers they knew more about the light and the location than I ever would because they grew up here and spent years exploring this area while herding sheep, playing in the canyons, or simply living there.
Antelope Canyon Today
Antelope Canyon has changed a lot over the years. It went from being unknown to being world-famous. In a way, I was part of the problem. I was selling many fine art prints of Antelope Canyon photographs and the cover of my second book featured one of my most successful Antelope Canyon photographs. However, I was not the only one to do so. Antelope Canyon had been photographed long before me, by Bill Ratcliffe as early as the 1950s (*), and later by just about every landscape photographer who made a name for himself. Today it is on every landscape photographer’s bucket list. Antelope Canyon has become quite simply a rite of passage, ranking as high as Antarctica, Iceland, Patagonia, Namibia, or the Atacama Desert on the list of exotic landscape photography destinations.
However, being famous is not a panacea. Personally, I believe it is best to be just famous enough: not too much and not too little, just the right amount to get where you want and no further than that. But how do you achieve that when you are in a canyon, a natural location whose destiny is in the hands of mankind? You don’t because it is not in your control. You hope for the best and you just take whatever comes your way. And you rebel if you disagree with what is being done to you. This is what Antelope Canyon did in 1998 when a flash flood killed 12 tourists in Lower Antelope Canyon.
Upper did not follow the same destiny and to this day no accidents have been reported since Upper Antelope Canyon tours were started. However, issues with crowd control have surfaced. Unlike Lower Antelope which people visit by accessing it from the bottom and walking back up the canyon, keeping the flow of visitors going one way only, Upper Antelope is a ‘two-way canyon.’ Visitors go in and out the same way making traffic double what it is since the same number of people who go up the canyon must come back down in the opposite direction. This creates traffic jams and it led to reducing the number of people present in the canyon in order to provide visitors with a pleasant experience.
The presence of light shafts further complicates the traffic issue because people park themselves and their tripods in front of a light shaft and do not move until they are satisfied they got the photographs they are after. This led to a tripod ban in both Upper and Lower Antelope. Now all photography in Antelope Canyon must be done handheld. Tripods are just too much of a problem in such a narrow location.
The good news is that today’s digital cameras can be set to a high ISO without creating unwanted digital noise in image captures. The other good news is that most photography in Antelope Canyon is done with wide-angle lenses which can be safely used with slower shutter speeds thereby minimizing the need for extreme ISO settings. All the Antelope Canyon photographs I created over the past three years have been done handheld and they are amongst my favorites. Shooting handheld instead of attached to a tripod renewed my creative freedom and inspiration. I could not have created these images with a tripod. I simply would not have thought of them.
I am often asked what is my favorite place to photograph. If I had to single out only one of them it would be Antelope Canyon. The Grand Canyon would not be far behind but I would list it as the place that made me successful in terms of business and marketing skills, or at least where I started this process. Plus the Grand Canyon is just too large to make it a personal place. Antelope is intimate in comparison. You can get to know it curve by curve, surface by surface, shape by shape, light shaft by light shaft, time of day by the time of day.
There is also the number of visits I made, the number of times I walked by and stopped at the same exact place in Antelope Canyon. As I mentioned in my previous essay I have been there well over 100 times, the first time in 1986 and nearly every year since, each year for multiple visits. I know the location like the back of my hand. I cannot say that of the Grand Canyon. Even though I have been to the Grand Canyon countless times most of my visits were to the Canyon rim from where I looked down at the chasm. The times I have been down into the Grand Canyon are much fewer. I hiked to the bottom and I rafted the river but both were long term expeditions lasting multiple days or weeks. The Grand Canyon is just too big for casual visits. Hiking and exploring it requires planning, logistical arrangements and backcountry permits. It also requires lots of gear, food and water because most hikes take several days, if not weeks.
Things are different with Antelope. I can go in and out in an hour. No planning is required. In the old days, I could jump in, literally. Today I can join a tour in minutes and be in an out of the canyon in under an hour if I want. Antelope rewards spontaneity.
I learned a lot about light and photography in Antelope Canyon. In fact discovering and learning how to photograph Antelope Canyon was a transforming moment in my photography. My visits to Antelope span the time I went from being a photography aficionado to being a professional photographer. It altered the priorities in my life from contemplating a career in academia to making a living creating photographic images.
This transformation started on my first visit to Antelope Canyon as I mentioned in my previous essay. That was the place and that was the date that changed everything for me. Before Antelope I was not paying much attention to natural light. I would sleep during sunrise and drive back during sunset, looking at the light changing to deep reds all around me unsure if I should stop to photograph or not. After Antelope light became my passion and obsession. I saw the light, literally and figuratively, in Antelope Canyon and it opened my eyes to the possibilities natural light offers in photography. I understood what light can do to an image, how it can transform a photograph from ordinary to extraordinary. I understood that light comes first, that composition is second and that location matters only in so far as light cooperates. I understood that great light can bless a location during my visit and that capturing it requires time, knowledge and experience.
I learned that if extraordinary light is not present then nothing magical will happen. You have to have great light. Light is to landscape photography what ingredients are to cooking. For a top chef having the best fresh ingredients is essential. Recipes, pots and pans and all the other trimmings of professional cooking, while important, are nothing without fresh ingredients. Everything starts with what you are going to cook, not with how you are going to cook it. In fine art cooking ingredients come first, recipes second and cooking skills third. In fine art photography, it all starts with light. You want the best light you can find.
Talking About You
What is the location or the event that made you want to take your photography to the next level? What made you commit to taking your photography seriously and create images you are proud of? Which location motivates you to create images that express your passion, your style, your vision? Which location inspires you to create images that are more than documentary records of the places you visit? Is there a specific location that transformed how you look at landscape photography? Is there a specific event that boosted your passion for photography? Was it receiving an award, doing your first art show, or making your first print sale? Was it a compliment from a friend or someone meaningful to you?
Take pen and paper and write down three events or locations, or three things that happened to you as a photographer that transformed how you approach photography today. I would love to read what was the one thing that boosted your passion for photography so if you want to share it with me, if you feel like emailing me what you wrote, please do so. I would very much enjoy reading it.
About Alain Briot
I create fine art photographs, teach workshops with Natalie and offer Mastery Tutorials on composition, image conversion, optimization, printing, business, and marketing. I am the author of Mastering Landscape Photography, Mastering Photographic Composition, Creativity and Personal Style, Marketing Fine Art Photography and How Photographs are Sold. All 4 books are available in eBook format on our website at this LINK. Free samples are available so you can see the quality of these books for yourself.
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Studying Fine Art Photography with Alain and Natalie Briot
If you enjoyed this essay you will enjoy attending a workshop with us. I lead workshops with my wife Natalie to the most photogenic locations in the US Southwest. Our workshops focus on the artistic aspects of photography. While we do teach technique, we do so for the purpose of creating artistic photographs. Our goal is to help you create photographs that you will be proud of and that will be unique to you. The locations we photograph include Navajoland, Antelope Canyon, Monument Valley, Zion, the Grand Canyon, and many others. Our workshops listing is available at this LINK.