Well hello, hello. I'm currently in Page, Arizona for their annual Lake Powell Balloon Regatta. I'll try to make a post about the Balloon Regatta later as the event is still in progress, until November 5th, at the time of writing. There's more to Page, AZ than the balloon festival of course. There's Glen Canyon National Recreational Area, most notably housing Lake Powell; there are the Navajo lands which have Upper, and Lower Antelope Canyon; and there's more but, I don't want to list them all.
Just yesterday I visited Lower Antelope Canyon, and took a tour of the slot canyon. All visitors must pay for a guided tour, $33 USD total for the regular tour ($34 if paying with credit card), which is kind of a bummer in my opinion but, it is what it is. The guide will lead a group through the canyon which last about a little over an hour. There is a "Photographer's Tour" option as well; I'll get to that later.
If you've ever seen a picture of Antelope Canyon, it looks so very mystical, and unreal. Well, if you haven't, you'll see some pictures here. Since I first paid eyes upon Antelope Canyon a few years ago, I have been wanting to visit this place since then. Obviously, I'm not unique in wanting to visit Antelope Canyon. Let me tell you, there are swarms of visitors wanting to see the slot canyons nearly every day. Even though school is in session, and it's a weekday, it still gets crowded. Though I don't want to even imagine the crowds in the summer.
Because of how many visitors want to see these slot canyons, the tour guides have to push their groups forward quickly. When I first heard that the tour was around an hour, I had mistakenly though that was a good amount of time. No, it's not enough time at all. I felt extremely rushed throughout the experience to only be able to spare 20 seconds or less at each spot. All the while our group was at the heels of the group in front, and there was another group right behind us as well. In my opinion there was little time to appreciate anything during the tour.
In hindsight, the tour seemed to be like a Instagram/Social media image generating machine. The tour guides would shout out some settings for the smartphones (choose vivid, yadda, yadda, yadda). Groups could easily take pictures of each other within the canyon, and the tour guide can take pictures of said groups as well. Might I mention that these group photos were to my detriment as they would block the path forward which means I'm stuck watching them, and have less time moving forward. As most people don't scrutinize their smartphone images, this tour kind of fits the bill for them. Only 20 seconds in each spot? No problem for them.
Now, I know what you have been thinking already. Why didn't I choose the Photographer's Tour option? I could have had double the time in the canyon, and have brought a tripod. A very valid question indeed. Well, let me rattle off some reasons, or excuses, why I didn't take the "better" option.
Well, let's start with the obvious: it costs more ($55 USD). The cost isn't so unreasonable for Lower Antelope Canyon, however, for the Upper canyon it's $108 USD doubling the price of the regular tour. For some visitors that's an acceptable price to pay. For me, not so much in conjunction with the other reasons.
Thousands of other photographers have already done it. That's not to say that there's no merit in visiting such places. But, I did not come with any intention of trying to sell images of Antelope Canyon. Having such pictures, while beautiful, are not unique as there are many others just like them. Almost every photography website, or vendor stand, that dealt with the western US had a picture of Antelope Canyon. If I'm going to try to sell a picture of Antelope Canyon, I had better make sure it somehow beats out the rest. Yeah, I saw those pictures the other photographers took; they're really well done, and it would be a tough ask to produce better.
My last reason, which was made after the tour, was that it just didn't look like fun. My tour group passed a couple of photographer groups during their sessions. All those photographers could hear was the shouting the of tour guides to keep moving forward. They would have to wait for the tour groups to clear, and then have maybe a minute at most to take a picture. They would have to jostle for the best spot in the narrow spaces against the other photographers before time's up, and they have to move on. They only get double the time so, they probably only get like a few minutes, and then have to trek up further than usual to the next spot. Sure, they can get a clean iso 100 image but, that seems to come at the cost of actually enjoying what they're shooting.
After talking to another visitor at the Balloon Regatta, my tip to all of you is to get on the very last tour of the day. The guides are more relaxed as there's no one biting at their heels therefore meaning that visitors get more time to enjoy the canyon. You may get lucky walking on, reserving a spot is highly recommended though.
My experience at Lower Antelope Canyon got me thinking about the challenges we face when it comes to enjoying popular destinations. Now, I have no problem with other people enjoying the same place I'm at. Everyone should get to enjoy the wonders of nature. There does seem to be some kind of limit to where there are just too many people in one spot though.
This reminds of the time I went to the Maroon Bells last year. There were hundreds of other photographers all around the edge of the lake. Some of those photographers would try to elbow each other to get the best spot. I didn't want any of that action so I took a spot to the far left, and just setup there. Then some photographers started moving more into the lake getting in front of everyone's framing. The resulting image I got wasn't too great but, it's what I was able to get. Anyway, it was evident that many people were not having a good time photographing the Bells that morning.
Even more recently for me was at Mesa Arch within Canyonlands Nat'l Park during sunrise. A bunch of irate photographers were there, so I didn't even bother photographing Mesa Arch, and looked off the right to photograph the rest of the canyons.
Along with the crowds are the jerks as well. Two days ago, at Horseshoe Bend, there was a guy flying his drone right next to the large sign saying, "NO DRONES". I asked him to stop flying his drone (with a please), and was greeted with a, uhhh... "Screw you," but less polite. Welp, I'm not looking for a confrontation so I walked off. That probably reinforced that dweeb's thinking that he can get away with anything though...
So what are some solutions to avoiding these crowds? Go early? Nah, that doesn't work all the time when there are other photographers waiting for sunrise. Within my limited experience, I only know of two methods to avoid the crowds.
Go long. There are many famous places that need legwork to get to. Many photographers are really lazy, and are unwilling to make hikes longer than 4 miles round trip. Couple the distance with starting early, you're sure to get a nice sunrise. If you know your way in a wilderness area, more power to you. Popular sites do eventually get roads to them, I mean that's how we got our parks and all, so photograph those spots now!
Go in the winter. People are strange in that they're willing to roast in 100F weather, where they can't really do much to cool off, but yet cannot stand wearing an extra layer when it gets cold. Winter weather weeds out a lot of unwanted people. On the other hand, it does come at the cost of changing the scenery you may have intended to photograph. Winter is fun though, embrace the cold!
That's all I have to rant about for now. You can see the pictures I took at Lower Antelope Canyon below. Keep in mind that these were not shot at ideal settings: ISO 400-800 (noise, less dynamic range), 1/40s shutter speed (camera shake), f/2.8 (shallow depth of field).