Welcome to the blog for Thomas Parry Photography. My purpose is to inform the public about photographic projects I have recently completed as well as those in progress and planned for the future. I will periodically post articles about different aspects of photographing nature, people and places. As I work with new hardware and software tools, I will pass along lessons learned that may aid other photographers. I will periodically write reviews about photographic equipment with which I have experience and books I read that may be helpful to others. I hope you enjoy reading my blog and return frequently. I invite your thoughts, good ideas, opinions and feedback.
| 15 December, 2013 01:11
Thomas S. Parry, Field Contributor, Nature Photographer Magazine
This is the second installment of a two-part article that was published in the Fall 2013 E-Edition of Nature Photographer Magazine and is reproduced here in its entirety. Part one provided background information on the Antelope Slot Canyons in detail and was published in the Summer 2013 E-Edition of Nature Photographer Magazineand this part will discuss how to photograph slot canyons.
Slot canyons are narrow and deep fissures in the earth carved over millions of years into the desert floor. These unique geological formations began as hairline cracks in desert sandstone that gradually widened over time by the flow of rushing water originating from flash floods. The interiors of such canyons are nothing short of magnificent to behold displaying large, twisting curls, arches and whorls radiating the incandescent glow from sunlight above and presenting a magnificent panoply of colors.
As with all forms of landscape photography, it’s all about having the right light to add drama to the scene and there is no substitute for good light when photographing slot canyons. Most of us who do landscape photography are preconditioned to expect optimal lighting around the “golden hours” of sunrise and sunset. The beauty of photographing slot canyons is that it is not necessary to arise at the crack of dawn nor wait until near sunset to capture the best light inside of the canyons. The Antelope Canyons are narrow and deep, which means that the sun must be high overhead before appreciable amounts of light begin to illuminate their walls. The optimum hours for slot canyon photography are during the middle of the day, between about 10:00 a.m. and 2:00 p.m. Also, contrary to elementary principles of general landscape photography, clear blue skies are most ideal for work in slot canyons. The full range of radiant colors visible in slot canyons will not develop under diffuse lighting, such as in cloudy or overcast weather.
Photographing Slot Canyons
Success in photographing slot canyons is all about recognizing the dynamics of reflected light and observing the subtle gradations in intensity and hue as the light enters from the openings at the top of the canyon and penetrates down toward the canyon floor. For the best photographs without resorting to high dynamic range (HDR) exposure techniques, carefully avoid including any visible sky in the frame as the contrast with the dark canyon interior will far exceed the dynamic range of what film or digital sensors can capture. Including any sky will cause portions of the image to be totally blown out or other darker areas to be substantially underexposed. For similar reasons, avoid any surfaces, such as areas of the canyon walls, bathed in direct sunlight. Although there are portions of the slot canyons that are so narrow and deep that they appear very dark even at mid-day, absolutely avoid the use of flash and avoid other photographers who may be trying to expose using flash. The flash will totally wash out the varied radiant colors created by the reflected light from above.
Search for light that has been reflected off of the red canyon walls above. The key is to look for areas within the canyons where sunlight is directly striking a wall and then shift your attention to the opposite side of the canyon in search of glowing orange and red areas to photograph. The areas illuminated by this reflected light will be the most colorful and will have manageable contrast together with smoother transitions. At the right angle, your eye will perceive subtle changes in hue and intensity as the reflected light penetrates deeper. Blue skies will often produce blue or purple reflections at the deepest levels of the canyon. With the right light and correct exposure, use of color filters and significant saturation adjustments in post processing are not necessary to detect the beautiful coloration. Other than normal camera calibrations in Adobe Photoshop and minor adjustments to contrast, no color alterations were made to any of the images accompanying this article.
As the sun moves across the sky throughout the day, the appearance of areas of the canyon walls receiving direct and indirect illumination will be dramatically altered. Even with the passage of just a few minutes, the formations within the canyon will undergo marked transformations. It is a good idea to plan your visit to allow time to make multiple trips up and down the canyon as the location and intensity of lighting varies through the four-hour mid-day timeframe of optimum photography. If backtracking is not possible but time and means allow, visit the canyons one day in the morning and another in the afternoon hours. The lighting will be dramatically different at each time of day.
Another reason to avoid visible portions of sky when shooting toward the top of slot canyons is the tendency to introduce lens flare, which in addition to creating distracting polygonal-shaped bright objects into your image due to light reflecting off the lens elements, may also create a haze that will dramatically reduce contrast and may lead to undesirable color casts in your images. This will overwhelm the subtle gradations in reflected light. Three things that can be done to reduce the likelihood of flare are first, make sure the lens and filters you are using employ antireflective coatings and second, are well cleaned. Third, use a lens hood. The hood will also protect your valuable lens when walking through narrow canyon straights. If using a zoom lens with a hood, you may best avoid flare by first zooming out to the widest angle the lens allows and ensuring no sky is visible in the field of view and then zooming in to capture the desired scene. If bright light is still directly striking your lens, the only other option to avoiding flare and getting a good capture is to consider changing position. Slot canyons include many overhanging ledges that can be used to shield your lens from direct lighting. Also, be patient. The light changes quickly and a difficult shot in one minute may become a prize shot a moment later.
Getting the Proper Exposure
Because slot canyons are normally quite dark, especially at their deepest points, a good, steady tripod is absolutely essential as many exposures will require from ten to thirty seconds for a good capture. Although long exposures made with digital sensors can result in excessive noise in the image, this can be minimized by shooting in RAW mode and keeping the ISO settings at 200 or lower. Post-production noise reduction algorithms in software applications such as Adobe Camera Raw, Lightroom, NIK, Aperture, or DXO do an outstanding job of eliminating noise, especially from RAW files. Also, to achieve uniform sharpness of foreground and more distant features within the canyons, it is necessary to use small apertures. I recommend a setting somewhere between f/11 and f/22. A circular polarizer, which will increase the length of exposure even further, will be a valuable tool to minimize undesired reflections while bringing out the intense colors of the canyons. To obtain the images in this article, I used a Gitzo tripod with an Induro five-way pan-tilt head that allowed me to position the tripod legs and camera body in a variety of directions at different angles to accommodate the uneven canyon walls and narrow canyon floors. With rock-solid support, I equipped my camera with a circular polarizer and used aperture priority settings for all captures.
As I have alluded to before, be mindful that a properly-framed shot within a slot canyon may contain considerable dynamic range, so it is particularly important to avoid exposing bright highlights. The exact amount to dial down the exposure will depend on the circumstances of each composition and your personal preferences. It is a good idea to include some darker areas in your composition to offset and accentuate the highlights in the scene. Begin by bracketing exposures upwards and downwards and pay particularly close attention to the histogram display rather than depending on the camera’s LCD display. The LCD will rarely display accurately what was really captured.
Finally, I recommend using the widest angle lens you have available. The canyons are very narrow and constricted in terms of space and in order to capture a broad, flowing feel to the walls and achieve maximum depth of field, the wider the field of view the better. The images I shot in this article were done with a 24-70 mm f/2.8 zoom lens set primarily at 24 mm. Although I am very pleased with the results, when I return to the canyons in the future, I intend to use either a 10-22 mm or fisheye lens to achieve the most dramatic perspectives within the canyons.
As for the care of your valuable equipment, remember that dust is a major factor in these canyons and, without taking some protective measures, will wreak havoc with and possibly cause damage to your equipment. On windy days sand will rain down into the canyons from the desert above—sometimes in large amounts. Similarly, when throwing sand to accentuate light beams, a fine dust will quickly accumulate on your equipment. Under these conditions, I placed a plastic garbage bag over my camera while carrying it in the canyon. I cut out a small opening in the side of the bag through which I could place the lens so that only the tip of the lens barrel was exposed. A rubber band held the plastic surrounding the lens barrel tightly to prevent dust from leaking in. It is a forgone conclusion that changing lenses in the canyons would lead to serious consequences for your sensor. Before entering the canyons, decide which lens you wish to use to photograph and leave that lens securely fastened for the duration of the shoot. That said, no matter how well you protect your camera and lenses from the dust, you will still end up with fine dust particles in the nooks and crannies of your camera and lens. Following the conclusion of my day of shooting, I used a can of compressed air to thoroughly clean my camera and lens. Do not remove and change lenses until you have blown out the fine particles or you will introduce dust into your sensor.
When you visit a slot canyon, there is more to see than tall, motionless rock walls. The light beams, visible in Upper Antelope Canyon during the summer months, penetrate the darkness of the canyon and make for magnificent, dynamic images. To enhance the visual prominence of the light beams, the Navajo guides will toss sand from the canyon floor just prior to making an exposure. The dust will reflect portions of the light beam, which will enable you to capture the shaft of light.
In Upper Antelope Canyon, you will find bowls smoothly carved into the canyon walls that frequently fill with sand that falls from above. As the bowls overflow with sand, the sand begins flowing over the edge of the bowl and creates the appearance of a waterfall made of sand.
Other things to look for when in the canyons include large trees or logs that become wedged high up in the canyon by a flash flood. Also, the flow of smooth sandstone striations on the canyon walls is sometimes disrupted by barnacle-like protrusions made from other forms of rock that erode at different rates. It is also common to find tumbleweeds that have blown into the canyons, which can introduce contrasting colors and different textures into your compositions.
Some Final Thoughts
Although scores of photographers visit the Antelope Canyons every year and publish countless numbers of images, don’t let that discourage you from visiting and photographing the canyons yourself. Your compositions will be uniquely yours and will hold great meaning to you. Everyone who sees the canyons for the first time with their own eyes experiences something awe inspiring and beautiful that subdues the human spirit to the majesty of nature’s handiwork. Be patient with the other visitors keeping in mind they are also as awe-struck by the beauty of the place as you are and are trying to capture their own memories. Although your time in the canyons will be limited, resist the urge to just photograph everything. Put your camera down and take time to behold with your own eyes the majesty of nature’s abstract sculpture studio.