Photography talk (click to expand if you’re interested in reading)
While I didn’t think photographing the canyons would be easy (especially on the standard tours), I was surprised by how challenging it ended up being.
The difficulty was both artistic and technical. Shooting in low light is not foreign territory for me, however, shooting low light landscapes with no tripod (anything to support my camera/elbows for stability for that matter) and minimal time to compose and check my images certainly was.
While the canyons aren’t pitch black or anything, they’re certainly dim, Upper Antelope especially. In the darker sections of Upper Antelope, I found myself struggling to balance keeping my ISO low to maximize dynamic range and detail, keeping my shutter speed fast enough to capture a sharp image, and dialing in a proper aperture to ensure my foreground and background elements were in focus. There’s not a lot of wiggle room when you’re underexposing at 1/25, f/5.6, ISO 3200. Combined with the intense dynamic range, especially in spots where the sky was visible from below, bracketing was a necessity and exposure bracketing by hand looking straight up doesn’t always work out. Lower Antelope was a lot friendlier to shoot handheld, as I was able to get solid exposures at around 1/30, f/11, ISO 800.
Technical components aside, what was really difficult for me was finding a great composition with the light conditions and the pace in which we were moving through the tour. One part of my brain is listening to our tour guide to learn a thing or two and to make sure I’m moving along with the pack as instructed, while another part of my brain is working to analyze the scene and light, trying to find a composition anywhere from the ground up free of wandering tourist heads/limbs.
In Upper, I wanted to get a shot that demonstrated scale and depth of canyon, but I unfortunately couldn’t do it with a composition I loved and I’m not sure how feasible it is to capture while on a standard tour. I fixated a lot of time trying to find the large scenes in Upper, realizing my mistake after the fact, but luckily had an opportunity to focus on the details on our visit through Lower.
The one thing I wish I could have done differently would have been to bring a stabilized lens to Upper. I elected for a light ultra-wide (18-35mm f/3.5-4.5G) which isn’t stabilized, and while ultra-wides are generally more forgiving when it comes to slow shutter speeds, I did not anticipate needing or wanting to go to speeds below 1/10 of a second. The choice of an ultra-wide was also a bit limiting when it came to capturing details and interesting compositions. I brought the 24-120mm f/4 VR to Lower and the longer focal lengths was great for picking out and isolating the shapes and colors and the VR was awesome to have.