Since the southwest is becoming more popular to photograph here are some tips for photographing the slot canyons out here.
1- Reflected light is king
Notice something in the slot canyon image to the left? How their is glowing reds and orange with varying degrees of brightness. The way in which you get these colors is through reflected light.
One thing you will notice real quick when photographing red rock in direct sunlight is that it does not have really any red in it. I can prove it to you. Pull up an image or red rock on your computer that was taken in the middle of day and find the red slider and adjust the reds only. You won’t see much of a move because the color of red rock is actually orange with a lot of undertone of yellow.
To bring out these undertones of red, and yellow you need to loose some the direct light contact. This can be done in a variety of ways, but with slot canyons it is already kind of done for you, you just have to find the right areas within them to take advantage of it.
To do this find somewhere where the light is penetrating the canyon, but only a little. This allows for the reflected light to bounce down the canyon walls slowly shifting from yellow to orange and finally to red as the final wavelengths of light get absorbed out. In the Antelope canyon image above I am actually facing towards the outside of the canyon. Just around the corner is the exit. The sun comes in and strikes the cliff wall and begins bouncing around. As you can see in the back there is a lot of yellow, but as the light travels further around the corners it shifts from yellow to red as it goes deeper into the canyon.
2-Create a sense of distance
Slot canyons vary rarely are filled with long tunnels that you can see for more that 10 yards, especially as they get narrower. They curve and twist according to the properties of water flow and the type of rock they move through. But one of the key things of landscape photography is that in your images you are trying to draw the viewer into them. So in order to do this you have to look for areas where it does just that. This image above is taken from Peek-a-Boo slot right at the mouth of it. (notice the reflected light)
In order to bring viewers into the image I set up the shot to use the front arch as a foreground along with the side of the canyon. Beyond the arch is a brighter light that pulls you deep into the canyon for viewing.
Below is another example of how I pulled the viewer into the shot. I use the natural curve and lines of the canyon to take you from left to right and eventually down into the canyon. This image is also a good example of the three lighting scenarios you get in a canyon as well. First is reflected light on the left providing a nice glow. On the far right is the shadowed area and in general what a slot canyon looks like all the time which is brown. In the far back there is direct light on the rock washing out all the best colors.
Not all slot canyons on smooth. Most have texture made by small pockets of erosion. Look for these different types of textures and use them to your advantage. They can create compelling and unique shots.
4-Not all slot canyons are created equal
You will soon recognize the main slot canyons that are photographed all the time on the internet. I can name them.
- Antelope canyon
- Spooky and Peek-a-Boo Slots
These are your most famous slot canyons. Most of the images so far have been from them. There are plenty of slot canyons here in the southwest that simply do not provide the same photographic experience. So plan your trip wisely. You might come out here and look for a slot canyon and find that it is wide and kind of ugly for photographic purposes.
To plan, learn the different sandstone types we have out here. This can narrow your viewing potential.
Technical canyoneering gear helps. I personally do not have some but desperately want some. But beyond that these are the things you want.
- A good all purpose lens that you can leave on for most of the canyon. Wide angles are best
- Polarizer-They can reduce unwanted glare on your rocks and bring out some of the colors you were wanting.
- a sturdy backpack
- A dry bag. (optional)
Check out some additional images from the slide show below.