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Antelope Canyon: Conjuring a Beam of Light

June 13, 2015 , , Richard Quinn
Antelope Canyon


In any slot canyon, but particularly at Lower Antelope, the visual atmosphere can vary dramatically through the course of the day. The top of this canyon is nothing but a fissure in the sandstone that’s as little as a foot wide in some spots, and all the light within the canyon proper comes down through that crack.

Antelope Canyon

The angle and the intensity of the sun’s rays changes throughout the day, and the sun’s position relative to the horizon changes through different seasons of the year. Those factors make a big difference in the quality of the light in the canyon, in the shifting hues and textures of the sandstone, and in the depth of the shadows, all of which can make a dramatic difference in your photographs.

There’s a well-known phenomenon at both Upper and Lower Antelope Canyon, something that happens regularly in the Spring and Summer, but never in the late Fall or Winter. Ephemeral “God beams” appear like magic in the confined space, slanting across the canyon floor like spotlights on a theater stage, only to disappear after a few minutes as the earth spins another fraction of a degree, breaking the perfect alignment.

Antelope Canyon

I was lucky enough to see, and to photograph, one–just one–of the beams on my first visit to Antelope, in mid-October of 2013.  I say lucky, because I was right on the cusp of being too late for the season–and when they’re gone, they’re completely gone, at least until the following Spring.  On my most recent visit, I drove up from Phoenix in early June, with the specific intention of catching the beams at their peak. We stopped at the site a day in advance, and I checked with the tour company, Lower Antelope Canyon Tours (the smaller of the two concessionaires), asking, specifically, about the best time of day for light beams. The gentleman in the ticket booth advised me to go with the photography tour scheduled at 10:20 AM the next morning. “That’s not the best time for colors,” he said. “but it’s the best time for the beams.”

There were a total of six people in our group when we set out the next morning, five photographers plus our guide, a lovely young Navajo woman named Quintana Tso. When I visited Antelope Canyon the first time, in 2013, a “Photography Pass” gave you carte blanche to enter the canyon unaccompanied, and wander at your own pace. That’s no longer allowed, because a few bad apples abused that privilege by climbing where they weren’t supposed to go, leaving sneaker prints and graffiti on the sandstone walls, and trash on the ledges. As is so often the case, a few insensitive individuals spoiled the whole thing for everyone else, and at first I was quite disappointed to learn of the new rules, seeing it as an unwelcome restriction that would diminish the experience. I needn’t have worried about that–our guide, ‘Tana, turned out to be a wonderful asset.  She was intimately familiar with every inch of the canyon, plus she knew the best settings for any type of camera, the best way to handle the extreme contrasts, the best shooting angles and spots to set up, and–this was so cool–she had the authority, by mutual agreement among the tour guides, to literally stop any other tour groups from moving through our space while we, the elite, privileged ‘photographers’, finished taking our perfect, distraction-free photographs. What was even more important to me personally: ‘Tana knew exactly where and when those famous beams of light were scheduled to appear, and she made sure we were able to take full advantage.

Light beams, or God beams, or crepuscular rays, or whatever you want to call them, won’t show up all that well in a photograph unless there’s something in the air to reflect the light source. The water droplets in fog or scattered rain showers are perfect for this purpose, defining and concentrating those awesome rays you sometimes see in a sunset, or after a storm. The particles in smoke, or in the ash from a volcanic eruption, or dust storms, or heavily polluted air–all of those will likewise serve the purpose, although in a rather more sinister fashion. Since you don’t generally have any of that sort of thing in Antelope Canyon–not the good, or the bad–the guides are forced to employ a bit of trickery to “bring out” the light beams for better pictures.  Theirs is a time-tested technique, and pretty simple, though it does take a bit of practice to get it right. All you need is a Dixie cup, liberal quantities of the fine sand that cushions the canyon floor, and a good underhand pitching arm (think, women’s softball). If you’d like to see exactly how that works, click the link to my “light beam” photo gallery! It’s very, very cool.

Antelope Canyon

Click anywhere on the photo (above) to start a Light Beam slide show.

A separate, much larger slide show gallery with all of my Antelope Canyon photos can be accessed from this link: <<click here>> , or from my Photo Gallery page.


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