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 12 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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