Photographing Slot Canyons

Canyon X, Abstract 2

Canyon X, Abstract 2

I have just completed my third trip to the slot canyons of the American Southwest, and a second one to Canyon X—and my 41st to the Southwest. It is a breathtaking place, somewhat challenging technically, extremely rewarding, and a sort of a spiritual experience—all at the same time. While I wait to print my new photographs, I would like to share a few thoughts about that place, about my photographic technique, and about the feeling of being there.

As far as I know, the most famous slot canyon is the Antelope Canyon, near Page, Arizona. It is beautiful, but it is very difficult to experience it the way its equally famous photographs portray it. In the popular months, unfortunately, it is very busy and you will be tripping on other photographers’ tripods while queues of 15-20 people rush past you in a tight space. Sadly, it did not feel good to me, but I understand that steps will be taken in the future to reduce its present overcrowding.

Canyon X, also near Page, but a bit further, some 30 minutes or so, is still an oasis of calm and peace. To get there you need to book a trip through Overland Canyon Tours, and if you are lucky, a helpful, polite, and a kindest guide, Charly, will look after you and just a handful of others. When I went there in September 2010, there were just two of us, and there were only four of us in September 2011. You get several hours to get busy, and hardly ever do you see another soul. Since my photography uses large format sheets of black-and-white film, each shot takes a while, and in the time I was there I have managed an extraordinary feat of taking 12 pictures. This is a personal record, as I rarely get more than 2-4 shots in a day, but Canyon X makes you want to take another one, after yet another: from a detail, to a whole-wall shot, to an abstracted view looking up. Then, you start slowing down, and the silence surrounds you, while the gently warm wind slowly caresses the walls. You sit down on the sandy canyon floor, and your thoughts get quieter, and you slowly sip that extraordinary view, feeling so very happy to be there, to be so lucky to be practically alone. You start feeling the place, the canyon becomes more intimate. That’s when magic happens, and you see images in the stone. That is the moment, when I visualise the contrasts, the lines, and their rhythms, that make black-and-white images work in their own very abstract way. Your eye gets trained very quickly to spot those gentle gradations of reflected light on the luminous rock that, as you hope, will play a major role in the drama of the finished image. My best pictures happen then, but I am down to the last 2-3 sheets of film…

I suppose that to many visitors those walls are just pretty shapes, and the place is extraordinary. To a photographer, especially working without colour, and on film, this canyon is pure magic: an excursion into the finesse of light that even the eye does not always see, and a study of the underlying raw structure of time and the canyon’s geological history, which colour tends to mask.

My Slot Canyon Photography Technique

You don’t need to coax those images very hard out of the rock. There are a few simple ideas, which I seem to follow. I arrived at them myself, and I would like to share them with you. If you are interested in knowing how to photograph a slot canyon in expressive black-and-white, I can help you. Colour is a very different story, perhaps much easier in a way, but also perhaps too exuberant for the senses to comprehend without falling into a stereotype. Black-and-white, I think, is much truer to the slightly ascetic spirit of the place.

By all means, please break my suggestions, as there are as many ways to express your vision, as there are grains of sand on the canyon floor. Until then, let me help you get started:

  • Timing. Arrive very early in the morning. B&W film is a sensuous being and it loves the gentlest shifts in subject brightness range. A full f-stop is a lot, and most of the time I find that if the sun hits a wall directly, it makes it lose its magic. The best light for my slot canyon photography is diffuse and indirect, when the glow is bounced off the walls of the canyon. By all means walk through the lower and the upper canyons to survey them quickly (you need a good 10-20 minutes for a brisk return walk), but get started photographing soon, before the sun gets too high. It is as if the lower-lying sun hits the very tops of the canyon and zig-zags into it by reflecting off the walls, creating those incredible gradients. Do not wait until it gets bright, trust your film, or trust your (good) sensor.
  • Light. In none of my photos there is any direct sunlight on the walls. Film is wonderful at accentuating that shaded subtlety of light—but get your exposures right in the middle. I usually want to have the lighter sections placed on zone 7, and the darker around 3, so I aim for a 5 zone range. If you do not use the zone system, you are just in luck, as in this case you can meter for the rock that is in the middle, between the lighter and the darker. Nonetheless, while metering, I usually discover that the darker sections tend to fall on zone 3-4, and the lighter on 6-7, so we need a touch of contrast expansion—read on.
  • Brightness Range. As the interesting light-dark gradations tend to fall in a 3-4 zone (f-stop) range, I generally develop my Canyon X sheets N+1. If you are not shooting individual sheets but an entire roll, this is one of those situations when you can safely N+1 the entire roll, unless you are planning on shooting this canyon with direct sunlight on its walls. If you are not familiar with the concept of N+1 development, I suggest you find out the approximate time in a book, such as Chris Johnson’s “Practical Zone System”, as the extended development time may be 10-40% of the normal development time. This will increase the apparent contrast, spreading the range of sandstone tones to fit a “normal” (grade 2 or 3) paper range nicely. I also like to tone my prints in selenium, which adds a further, smaller level of expansion. I think those contrast expansions show the glow around the edges of the curves on the rock in the most magical way. Of course, if you are shooting digital, you can experiment by moving the level sliders until you get the results you desire, but go gently, as the glow is a very ephemeral thing and it goes away as easily as it appeared. It is easy to miss it digitally, I think.
  • Focusing. Focus using movements, if you have that option on your camera, as it will be pretty dark there, and you may prefer not to have to stop your lenses all the way down, as the resulting exposures would be very long. Some of my shots are at EV 5, and I generally use HP5+, which is an ISO 400 film. Most of my negatives are taken at (ISO 400) EV 7-8, which translates into perhaps a 4 s exposure at f/22, before the reciprocity failure factor has been added, making it into more of an 8 s exposure. Personally, I prefer to have the whole shot sharply in focus, because that is how my eye sees the place—you are always an arm’s reach from a wall.
  • Filtration. In some of the shots you might want to coax a little bit more detail out of the mostly red rock. I experimented, I think successfully, with using an otherwise rather odd filter: a #47 Tri-Blue, for which I need to add another 2 1/2 or even 3 stops of exposure. It helps to accentuate the detail, and it is the only “trick” I used for some of my photographs.
  • Lenses. As you are photographing in a tighter space, you have a cool opportunity to actually use many of those prime lenses you collected over the years. Many focal lengths come useful in the canyon, but you are unlikely to need anything too long. On my 4 × 5″ I used, in the order of frequency, a 150 mm (about normal), 110 mm (bit wide), 210 mm (normal), and an 80 mm (wide).
  • Support. Make sure your tripod is happy holding the camera in odd positions. In quite a few shots my LF camera was pointing upwards. I only have a rather undersized ball-head on a smallish (and light) carbon fibre tripod, but with a good tightening (carry that spare allen key, or be thankful to Charly) it all stayed in position for even the longest exposures. There is none, or very little wind there, which helps to keep things steady.
  • Notes. Make notes. My “metadata” is a notepad and a pen. I figured a while ago, that a great aid in learning and improving my skills is having notes to go back to. Here is a little problem, perhaps specific to sheet film: as you may be shooting very strange and abstract images, you may find it difficult to relate the finished images to your notes. Make a rough sketch in your notepad, it helps immensely in reconciling things when you are printing.
  • Dust. Finally, take the usual sand-and-dust precautions: ziplock bags for the negative holders etc. No matter what you do, there will be an odd speck here and there, but I think it adds to the character of traditional photography, and gives you a chance to have a go at spotting your finished prints. Just to be on the safe side, I shoot each image twice, so I have a backup. My second shot is usually a 1 f-stop bracket (usually +1), and it also gives me a fallback option in case the negative has a speck in a lighter section of the image. I wish I did that with my earliest images, for which I only have a single negative!

Above all, enjoy the experience. The images will make a connection to the spirit of the place whenever you look at them in the future. I wish you an experience that fills you with awe and joy. I hope to return to Canyon X to experience it again. I might even take more photos.

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