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Tuesday, October 26, 2010

US National Parks: Antelope Canyon

Antelope Canyon...a natural wonder. About 5 miles off the town of Page, the canyons have held thousands of photographers and tourists with its charming and wonderful shapes and hues. As it was within the Navajo Indian Reservation, American Indian guides are required. For the Upper Canyon, these tours take about an hour. For photographers who want to spend a bit more time inside the canyons, a longer Photographer's tour is offered. I took the Photographer Tour. Chief Tootsie, who apparently runs one of the largest agencies in the area is the promoter. The tours start at Page downtown, and tourists and photographers are carried on 4WH trucks on road to the canyon. But the last 3 miles or so, is on unpaved, desert dust ground...and undulating.

The photographer's tour, though still better than the regular one, proved disappointing. The Navajo are perhaps being too greedy, letting in too many tourists into the canyons...supposedly their sacred grounds. As a result, the tour was very crowded...very difficult to shoot pics without someone kicking your tripod or moving into the picture.

The Upper Canyon is wide, and the sandy floor of the canyon an easy walk.

The tonality of the sandstone walls and its wierd and wonderful shapes are fascinating. At mid-day, light from the sun comes into the canyon in the form of light shafts, famous in their own right. The Navajo guides throw sand into the light, causing it to disperse and show up in pics as light shafts. Beautiful.

Metering was done to place the highlight on the canyon wall at Zone 5. This meant that the spot where the light shaft fell became overexposed at Zone 10+. But to preserve the tonality of the image, and to show shadow detail, which fell on Zone 2, I had little choice. Exposure at ISO50 was in the region of 0.2s at f/22. You can see a Navajo guide at the extreme right of the picture. I could have cropped him out, but left him there to show the situation. For prints, I will have the guide cropped out. Such is the crowd. I had so few pictures of the Upper Antelope, these 2 technically deficient ones are the only ones I have.

The fine sand is also a nightmare to the equipment. The sand was as fine as talc, and thrown into the air, it permeates everything. I felt the sand in my lungs, mouth, throat, and of course it would settle on camera gear. My shooting partner, who shot sans protection, had his Canon 5Dmk2 and 17-40L covered in sand...including the insides of the zoom...making it feel a bit gritty to move. He reports, happilly though, this is easily cleaned with a bottle of compressed air back at the hotel.

But as for my equipment, I did not want to take any chances. I had earlier corresponded with several people who had shot there, as well as Hasselblad in Sweden - fearing that the dust would enter my camera and lenses. Afterall the H3D features an air cooled back...air is actually sucked in by a fan and circulated around the back to cool it. I was afraid that drawing air into the sensor would make it unusable. I was recommended to either wrap the camera and lens in Saran or get Kata KT702 Elements Cover. Saran wrap was a cheap solution, but I feared overheating. So I went with the Kata and it worked wonderfully. I found hardly any sand inside the enclosure.

Another view of the Upper Antelope, this shot taken almost directly up into the sky.

I metered at the middle rock to place it in Zone 5. This meant the sky at the top of the picture would blow out beyond Zone 10. But I had wanted the shadow areas on the rock left of the frame to show detail and texture, hence placed them on Zone 1 or 2. Notice also the light, because it is reflected off the walls, has a blueish hue on the shadow areas, but the parts bathed in more direct light like in the lower middle of the frame, shows a beautiful golden glow. I love the play of light, and the tones it creates, as well as the abstract shapes and lines within the sandstone.

These canyons are created by flash floods, where the rushing waters carve the intricate, amazing curves on the sides of the rock. The Navajo consider this as sacred ground.

The color and gradations of tone are as fascinating as are the shapes of the walls.

I also went over to Lower Antelope Canyon, just across the road, some 2km away. Here, there were far less crowds. And with a photographer pass, I can stay within the canyons for up to 4 hours, shooting as I wish. Allowing guided groups to pass. The canyon closes at 4:30pm, so we needed to be out of there before dark.

The tonality of the walls and the shapes are no less intriguing. In this shot, I placed the wall left of the frame at middle Zone 5. This meant that the sky, peeking into the center of the image as a crack would blow out. You can also observe the blue tinge on the shadows. Lens flare from the HCD 4/28 can also be seen as a rainbow like flash. I don't think this strategy of metering was very successful in this picture, but I decided to show it as a negative example.

The next image above, in my opinion is better. I had metered to place the middle of the image. This again caused the bit of sky peeking into the frame at the top to blow out. But this metering scheme placed the bright spot where direct sunlight hit the canyon walls at Zone 10, perhaps a bit beyond. In looking at the raw file, the underside of the rock on the left was in the deep shadows - zone 8+ to 9. Using the Phocus tools, I can recover the shadow details. I also could have recover some sky detail, but decided to let this part blow slightly, to give the impression of intense light coming in. This exposure scheme allowed me to place the wall left at a final expoure of Zone 3 or perhaps 2. Giving it dimension and allowing the striations to show, and the tonality to reveal itself.

The next image was my favourite.

I also placed Zone 5 at smack center of the frame. This allowed the sunlight to cast a beautiful tone on the canyon walls in the background. The lines on the walls making a beautiful abstract. It also placed the foreground object...some debris of branches of dead trees to fall in Zone 9, highlighting it. This image needs to be seen larger. Please click for a 1920 wide sample. And when printed to 40"x30", it is spectacular.

Some parts of Lower Antelope are so narrow, one can hardly squeeze into it. And Lower Antelope requires some climbing - ascending and descending steel stairs, while Upper Antelope is completely flat within the canyon walls.

The geology of Lower Antelope is different from Upper Antelope. The beads you see, punctuating the walls are iron deposits.

This image was much easier to achieve. The entire tonal range can be captured within the dynamic range of the back, and merely metering to place the middle of the frame at Zone 5 allowed the entire image to fall within the other reproducable zones. I included this image to show the tight spaces one has to squeeze through in Lower Antelope...the space barely 2 feet between the walls. The tonality of the image is also rather even, perhaps making a slightly boring image.

Exiting the canyon, I shot this self portrait of my shadow in the 4pm sun...

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