Goodbye to Antelope Canyon

January 13, 2023

There are many iconic landscape photography locations in the American Southwest: Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, the Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona, or the Wave in the Paria Canyon-Vermilion Cliffs Wilderness. But perhaps one of the most mesmerizing and enticing locations is Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon on Navajo Nation land near Page, Arizona.

Countless landscape photographers have photographed at both Antelope Canyons and sold prints in their galleries from those locations. But perhaps the most famous is "Ghost," captured by Peter Lik. It first became publicly known by winning the Art in Nature category in the 2010 Windland Smith Rice International Awards. This was actually the same year I won the Environmental Issues category for my image "Wolf Tracks on Ice." Our images hung nearby each other at an exhibition at the Smithsonian Institute's National Museum of Natural History in 2011. But "Ghost" really made it big after Peter Lik converted it to a black and white and sold it for $6.5 million as "Phantom" to an anonymous buyer. (The legitimacy of this sale has been widely questioned.) On the same day he also sold "Eternal Mood" for $1.1 million. It, too, was a black and white conversion of another image, "Eternal Beauty," which was captured in Antelope Canyon.

Digital photography has revolutionized how we approach landscape photography. It has allowed us to instantly review composition and exposure, and with higher ISO adaptability, has granted us the ability to work under darker conditions without a tripod. But for me, I still prefer to follow many of the precepts that have long served landscape photographers well - using a lower ISO when possible to avoid noise and using a tripod to create longer exposures and allow more time to contemplate compositions.

Prior to May 2022, I had visited Lower and Upper Antelope Canyon twice each. As is required when traversing on all Navajo lands, I went with a Navajo guide each time on a "photographer-only" tour. But the guide and the specialized tour allowed me to take my time in contemplating my compositions. The endless shapes and patterns of the canyons take time to study and absorb, allowing the compositions to reveal themselves.

When preparing for a trip to northern Arizona in May 2022, I made arrangements to join a guided tour of Lower Antelope Canyon. Michelle had never seen either of the canyons before, and I wanted to share this unique geological feature with her. It was then that I learned that tripods were no longer allowed in either of the canyons. I was disappointed to hear this. One of the things that makes an Antelope Canyon photo sing with color is the long exposures - the longer the exposure, the richer the color. In previous visits, I shot for an exposure of nearly 30 seconds. Additionally, I like how a tripod allows me to slow down and think through a composition. I also prefer to have as little noise as possible in my landscape photos - a task easy to accomplish when I can photograph at ISO 50, rather than 1600. None of these techniques would be possible anymore. In addition to the tripod ban, all tour groups would now be required to make it through the entire canyon in no more than one hour.

During our guided trip with Ken's Tours, I asked our guide about the policy change. He noted that during the pandemic, tourism on Navajo lands was shut down. Being disproportionately impacted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the Navajo Nation instituted a variety of stiff measures to combat the spread of the disease. Given the importance of tourism to the Navajo Nation's income, shutting down both Antelope Canyons had a deep impact on the Navajo economy. When restrictions were lifted, it was believed that that having tour groups move through quickly, and thus be able to run more tours per day, was the best way to recover quickly the lost revenue. Or so that's how our guide explained it. But the policy went into effect on December 20, 2019 - before the pandemic hit.

So it is not that the Navajo Nation needed to make up revenue lost from the pandemic, it is simply that the Navajo Nation did the math and determined how much more money could be made by ending the "photographer-only" tours. Both Antelope Canyons would now become factory production lines for quick landscape photos of slot canyons.

I do not like to be rushed when I am taking landscape photos, and I like to take the technically-best photo that I can when I am working a landscape. I know that there were shots I missed when I went to Lower Antelope Canyon in May 2022. The sense of awe and wonder was still there with the amazing formations, but I felt like I was missing out by not exploring the landscape to its potential. No matter how many times I could go there, I know I would find new compositions given the time to explore. But now I will no longer have the time to explore with the "no tripods" policy, and with being limited to an hour to make my way through the entire canyon. This means that I will not likely visit Antelope Canyon ever again to create a landscape image. There are still plenty of stunning landscapes in the American West where I and my tripod, and my time needed to contemplate, will be welcome.

Goodbye, Antelope Canyon. It was good to get to know you, if even just a little bit.

Reflected light fades to varying shades from yellow-orange to purple in Upper Antelope Canyon.
The View Up
It is easy while walking through Upper Antelope Canyon to be awed and inspired by the Navajo sandstone formations that are straight ahead, beside, or behind you. But, a look straight up can provide incredible visions of patterns and textures.
The Gap

Varying degrees of bounced light create different colors in a gap at Lower Antelope Canyon, Navajo Nation, Arizona.

As light bounces through the canyon, the light gets cooler as it gets farther away from its original entry point into Lower Antelope...
Sandstone Waves

As light bounces through the canyon, the light gets cooler as it gets farther away from its original entry point into Lower Antelope Canyon.

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