Canon 5D Mark II, Canon 16-35mm F2.8 II L @ 28mm, RRS L-plate, Gitzo 3541 Tripod, Markins M-20 Ballhead, RAW files.
Sandstone slot canyons are such an iconic symbol of American southwest and their images can easily become a visual cliché. However, every photographer can still have his/her own unique vision and personal interpretation of the beauty of this wonderful landscape.
I visited Lower Antelope Canyon during a family vacation last Christmas. Although this was my first visit, but I had already seen too many images from this location and I decided to create my unique version. It was not an easy mission. The place is small and there are hundreds of photographers come to here each and every day.
I received a “photographer’s pass”, which meant that I could wondering around the place by myself for up to two hours, without the need of joining a guided tour with other tourists. I explored different locations and angles, until I saw an opening on the top of canyon, showing blue sky. The opening looks like a window and the surrounding curves and colors are simply gorgeous. I knew that I’d found my shot. I setup my tripod and carefully composed the image.
There were some technique challenges here, though. The brightness difference between the inside and outside of the canyon is extreme. While our human eyes can see details on the sky and inside the canyon at the same time, the contrast far exceeds the capability of most cameras. We landscape photographers have to deal with such problems all the time — for example, the bright sky and dark ground during sunrise or sunset. Normally we use our trusted Graduated Neutral Density (GND) filters to control the contrast. However in this situation the shape of the “window” is irregular so I could not possibly use GND. I decided to use another commonly used method — exposure blending — which is popular among digital shooters.
I waited until I saw some thin clouds on the sky, since they added lots of interests to the otherwise plain blue sky. I then made two consecutive exposures. The camera was set to manual mode. The first exposure was taken at ISO 100, F11, 1/50 second. The sky was properly exposed, but the rocks were severely underexposed. The second exposure was taken at ISO 100, F11, 0.5 second. Now the canyon walls were beautifully rendered, but the sky was completely blown out. The two shots are then exposure-blended together in post-processing.
I am very happy with the outcome. Although this was my first visit to this popular location and I spent less than two hours there, this work quickly became one of my most popular images. Apple Inc. recently has licensed this image to showcase the vibrant colors and stunning details of the Retina display of their new MacBook Pro on Apple.com:
Always try to approach your subject from a different angle and be willing to experiment. Even in an iconic location that has been photographed to death, you may still find a fresh perspective.