A Lesson In The Nature Of Light

As soon as I saw a picture of Antelope Canyon I knew I had to see it.  

Antelope Canyon is actually Antelope Canyons, as it’s split into two parts that are only accessible with guided tours, as they belong to the Navajo nation, and are also subject to flash floods.

Tours to the Upper Antelope Canyon are organised by different companies, while Lower Antelope seems to be a family-run business with just one company having access to it and taking no reservations. 

I had booked a tour in Upper Antelope during the so-called “prime time” the central hours of the day, when the light coming in creates rays similar to spotlights inside the canyon. You are taken to the entrance by 4WD on a very bumpy road, that is actually the bed where rain water flows when there are heavy storms. 

The entrance to the canyon is level with the ground and looks like theatre curtains, it’s amazing how water and wind managed to create such “flowing” shapes from stone. You feel the urge to touch it to confirm it’s solid rock. 

Then you enter the canyon and the surprise continues: it is quite dark inside, in some points, where it’s narrower it is really dark, as the opening at the top is much narrower than the bottom of the canyon where you walk, so there isn’t much light coming in. The stone itself is a reddish-purple colour when you look at it, but when you take pictures the magic happens. The images gathered by our eyes are constantly adjusted by our brain, so the colour we see is more or less constant, but if you use a camera, it gathers the available light, and there is where all the colours come to life. 

According to where and how you point your camera you can obtain different effects, without tampering with settings and white balance, just playing with the light reflected by the walls of the canyon. 

I know the physics that is at the base of this effect, but I still find it amazing and almost magic! 

I managed to get pictures of the famous and much sought-after rays in Upper Antelope, and I have to say it was worth it, even if it was really crowded, and I found being told what to photograph, from where and when, quite annoying. I know that guide was well-meaning, but I hate being told what to do (and to tell the truth, some people really needed advice, as they were using flash, spoiling the whole effect).

Then I went to Lower Antelope Canyon, which is said to be the opposite of Upper Antelope: Lower is an underground canyon with a V shape, so there are no light rays and access is a bit more difficult, as it happens through a crack in the ground, even if it’s well equipped with metal ladders. Unfortunately there had been a flash flood two days before I went and the canyon was still being cleaned, so I could only visit part of it. 

But I was lucky to be able to. This canyon is a lot less crowded and the guide was less obtrusive, she would take pictures of you in the canyon, if you wanted, but wasn’t rushing you, or telling you what to do. She was actually helpful with people who asked for advice. 

The canyon really is the opposite of Upper Antelope, it has a lot more textures and more colours are developed by the shape of the canyon. I think I will have to try and go back to walk it all! 

I thoroughly enjoyed the experience, it was a real lesson in the use of light and reflections, and the way we see. And if you go there I suggest you visit both canyons as they are different and equally interesting.

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Light Is The Way To Go

I have taken photos for ages, not very special ones, just souvenirs of the places I’ve seen, the people I’ve met, the silly things we’ve done together. Some turned out really good, some less so, but I’ve kept them all.

I have asked people to take pictures of me, sometimes, but very rarely as not many were able to fiddle with manual focusing, so they invariably turned out blurred and useless.

Then I went digital and everything was easier, I was able to see them immediately and check if they were fine or not.

I had (well I still have) a really cool Olympus mju stylus, which is the perfect camera to always take with you and has the best design I have seen so far. But it has limits.

Enter a bridge camera. I loved its versatility, but it also had limits.

So a couple of years ago I bought my first DSLR: quite a learning curve, even being already used to manual settings and aperture or shutter speed priority. But I really love the possibilities, the image quality, the manual zoom ring on the lens, the wide angle, the viewfinder. I love the sound of the lifting mirror when you press the shutter button. I bought a nice and comfortable backpack and I drag it around everywhere I go.

The problem is I love to travel, I often get away just for the week end, and low cost companies only allow one item of hand luggage most of the times, so how can I fit my nice padded camera backpack into my main backpack, and leave room for clothes too? Or, more precisely, fit into the weight requirements?

I have been considering a mirrorless camera for a while, and now I caved in. After a really tough job I thought I deserved a gift, so I bought a PEN E-PL3 with double lens kit (I found a real bargain on this, which was lucky). It is actually quite a bit smaller than my DSLR, especially when the 14-42 kit lens is retracted in “transport position”, even if the 40-150 is just as long as my DSLR lens, although it is slightly thinner and lighter.

I have played around a bit with it and I quite like it, but I still have to get used to it, especially to the missing viewfinder (I often find myself taking the camera to my eye 🙂 ), but I think it may be a good compromise between flexibility and image quality on one side and size on the other.

Am I ready to ditch my DSLR? No, not at all, but I think I will use the PEN a lot more than I have used the stylus lately; I just cannot go back to a smaller sensor, and I am sure I would have regretted not having the possibility to switch lenses, had I bought a point-and-shoot to travel with.

I’ll keep you posted on my experience.