Slot Canyons – A Mesmerizing Hidden World Below The Surface
“It is really difficult to describe, with words, what feelings being inside a slot canyon evokes;
it would be like trying to describe how it feels to fall in love. It is something you have to experience for yourself"
- Jennifer Magallon
My recent travels took me to Page, Arizona, where a long time dream of mine came true. I was finally experiencing the beautiful light of the slot canyons. For years, I had been looking at photographs of this region, and I was awe-inspired by them. I knew that one day, I would go and experience it with my own eyes. The canyons are located in the Navajo Nation, just east of Page, Arizona. Upper and lower Antelope Canyons are the most visited slot canyons of the Southwest. Upper Antelope Canyon is known as Tsé bighánílíní – “the place where water runs through rocks” – in the Navajo language; and the Lower Canyon Hazdistazí - “spiral rock arches.” Besides visiting these two canyons, I also visited Rattlesnake, Owl, and Mountain Sheep Canyon, and I highly recommend going to some of the lesser-visited canyons to actually have time to connect and experience the beautiful stillness that can be found within them. The canyons felt very mysterious and spiritual to me, perhaps because of their hidden nature. Entering the canyon reminded me of walking into a place like a big cathedral, a place that will leave you in awe with its beauty and vastness and depth – a place of contemplation and stillness and something that demands respect from every visitor.
Slot canyons are very narrow and usually very deep. They can easily be only 3 feet on top but reach down 100 feet. These magnificent canyons have been created by floodwaters rushing through and sculpting the sand or limestone into beautiful sinuous walls. To me, the soft-to-the-touch sandstone looked like dancing waves, with the light being the water gently flowing through it. I’m amazed how our brain is capable of making sense when presented with random data, and shortly after entering the canyons, I started to see all sorts of shapes in the sandstone formations - like human faces/forms, animals, and all sorts of things. I even saw something that reminded me of a wild, dragon-like creature. Some of the slot canyons merely look like a crack in the earth from up top, but once you are inside, you will be able to witness how the beams of light that enter the canyons throughout the day at different angles create a dance of light and shadow and turn the sandstone into shades of yellow, orange, red, purple, and blue. You cannot visit the canyons without a Navajo guide; I highly recommend going on a tour specifically for photographers. You will have the expert knowledge and guidance and also benefit from the very-necessary crowd control done by your professional guide.
It will also allow you to have at least a few minutes or more to set up and frame your shot before the next tour enters and it gets tight and busy. At times, it is also very narrow and dark, so I recommend having your camera set up on a tripod, remote control attached and just be ready to shoot! Also, because of the narrowness inside the canyons, don't bring a backpack if you don't have to; it is very crowded, and you will not have a lot of time. Be flexible, patient, and do what you can with what you have. Less gear is really more in this situation. I’m specifically talking about Antelope Canyon; I had no idea it would be as crowded as it was, and I wasn't even there in the peak season. I underexposed all my shots by one full stop, which helped quite a bit - plus I bracketed. Shoot from the shadow! It will take a little bit to get a feel for the light in the canyons, but this will help you to get started. You are trying to photograph the reflected light, which occurs when the sunlight hits a canyon wall and reflects that light onto another wall. This is the light that will produce rich saturated colors. If you only have one camera body, I can share with you that I was the happiest with my wide angle lens 16-35mm - and as my post-shoot analysis in Lightroom revealed, I shot most at 16 mm and 35mm. There were a few shots I would have liked to have a longer lens for, so if you have another body equipped with a mid-range zoom, go for it. Please don't attempt to change lenses in the canyon. Have a filter in front of your lens and keep wiping it often. The sand is very fine and sticky and will be on and in your equipment very fast. Do anything possible to protect your gear. I was advised to buy a bit of putty goo to pick up the remaining sand dust from the body and lens. It worked very well for me - much better than only the brush that I use to wipe off my equipment.
This was definitely not my last visit to the slot canyons ;-) The dance of shadow and light within the canyons is mesmerizing and kept me engaged and shooting the entire time I was inside. It seemed like a never-ending plethora of possible photographs. I would make my way through the narrow walkways, climb up ladders, and crawl into narrow spaces. Most of the time, my tripod was at its lowest position, and the camera was shooting up, making it very difficult to frame the shot at times. So, the less you carry inside the canyon, the better off you are!
What really made this visit special was the human connection. My extraordinary guide - he was so kind, modest, and knowledgeable, and he shared so much valuable information with me. He made me understand a lot more about the place than I ever would have learned on my own. Besides being an incredible photographer, he is a studied and talented musician and while we were riding in his car from canyon to canyon, he would play his beautifully composed music for us. In the canyon, he even played the flute. He then shared with us that he only plays his own compositions and when he plays inside the canyons, he feels connected with the place and the people that have once been here but who are no longer with us - he plays for the lost souls in the canyon. We also encountered two small Mohave rattlesnakes in one of the canyons. We were alerted to watch out for them. This was the very first time I was standing in front of a snake in real life; I spotted the first one (to my own amazement since they are surprisingly small). After that initial encounter, I just kept seeing snakes whenever I’d spot a color pattern close to the snake that I had just seen. In the last canyon we visited, our guide told us that he wanted to show us something very special; eager in anticipation of what might be awaiting us around the corner, we followed him inside the canyon. We sat down on a rock and it got really quiet for a moment. We then realized that this was actually the big surprise, so we all chuckled in union, before we leaned into the silence. This less-visited canyon is a place were you can find and connect with complete stillness - something that seems so rare and special in our modern world. I was very thankful to be able to conclude my visit to the canyons with this experience. Thank you!
Wow!! Really beautiful Jenn...
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