Five Hard Earned Tips For Photographing Slot Canyons

July 14, 2018  •  1 Comment

I’m doing the splits ten feet off the deck.  A pool of muddy water lies at the bottom of the canyon below me.  A silly grin crosses my face as I realize my predicament.  It’s all good, my shoes will stick, it will be worth it if I get the shot.  My camera strap is thankfully around my neck just in case my grip slips.  I yell down the canyon at my friend Aaron,  “Okay, I am ready, go for it.”  He begins stemming across the canyon and my camera shutter begins to rapid fire.

Aaron Stemming A Flooded Slot CanyonFor me this is what photographing in slot canyons is all about. It's the opportunity to make original and unique work in a challenging and fun environment.

Slot canyons are the stuff of dreams for any nature photographer.  Brilliant light, twisting sandstone walls, and unlimited compositional options, slot canyons truly are amazing.  Put the word technical in front of slot canyon and you have a real adventure.  Whether your canyon is a hike or a technical slot, slots present some serious photographic challenges. 

So here are five tips for photographing in slot canyons.  These are hard earned, by the way.  Just ask my camera equipment and shredded Black Diamond climbing bag, more about that later.  Okay here we go! 


1) Find The Right Light

So how do you find that glowing light that slot canyons are famous for?  Well the short answer is look for bounce light.  Bounce light is light that is bounced from one wall of the canyon to the next.  The canyons with the best bounce light are the ones that curve.  Find a curvy section of canyon and your chances for good bounce light will increase dramatically.  As a side note, remember that the dynamic range of your camera is not nearly as good as your eyes.  Yes, I know about HDR, but I personally like to do only one exposure if I can help it.  This is why I look for sections of canyon that are only being lit by bounce light, not direct light.  Direct light has intense highlights where as bounce light does not. Check out the photoS below for good examples of bounce light.  

Light In A Dark HallwayA beautiful example of bounce light. Notice how the canyon is taking an s-curve. Curvy canyons make good bounce light. Light Beam At High NoonNotice how curvy this canyon is. There is light bouncing all over the place!


2) Find The Right Angle

Don’t forget to change your angle.  For those with a creative mind and a little bit of climbing skill, canyons can be a blast.  Who needs a drone when you have a large ledge you can stand on and look over?   Get on the ground and see how that changes things. Rarely do I just shoot at eye level.  If you end up twice as dirty as everyone else in your group, you are doing it right!  Also, zoom in and out.  It is easy to get caught up in the grandeur of a large canyon, but what about all of the little stories along the way.  You never know what kind of wildlife friends you will find in a slot canyon if you take the time to look.

300 ft. Rappel in Knotted Rope Canyon300 ft. Rappel in Knotted Rope CanyonI was hanging 300 ft. off the ground from a rope for this one but It was worth it! Below The RepelThink high and think low and think everything in between. I was providing a back-up belay and photographing at the same time.

Royal Ringneck SnakeYou never know what you will find in slot canyons.

3) Save Your Gear!  

Canyoneering is rough.  Clothes get shredded, arms get scraped, and hands get rubbed raw.  Oh, and then there is your poor camera gear.  Lenses get filled with fine granules of sand.  My beloved 17-40mm f/4, may it rest in pieces, sounded like it was being ground to pieces whenever I manual zoomed it.  Tripods, if you dare bring one, get smashed.  I often find myself squeezing into openings barely big enough for a mal nourished mole to get through, let alone a photographer with a backpack full of gear.  My current tripod always gets odd looks when people see it.  It looks like I tied it to a rope behind my car and drove down the freeway with it bouncing along for a couple of miles.  My 5D Mark III, despite my best efforts, has multiple rub marks from coming in contact with canyon walls.  All of these things are inevitable!  If you want perfect looking gear, then don’t do canyoneering!

That being said here are a few thoughts on how to help your camera survive a mean natured slot.  First, dry bags are your friend.  Slot canyons often have varying degrees of water and it never ceases to amaze me how unpredictable those water levels are.  Especially after recent rains, bone-dry slots can become muddy swimming pools.   Unless you have a waterproof camera, your gear will not survive a good dunking.  Here is the next tip.  Always bring a couple of dry bags to put your gear in. 

Go light with the gear. Especially when I am doing a long technical slot, I take one DSLR and one lens.  My go to lens for canyons is a canon 16-35mm 2.8.   I know there might be a few gear junkies that are crying right now, but trust me, your back will thank me later.  Also, remember that many slot canyons enjoy punishing those with large packs and large middles J

Speaking of packs, I like a good shoulder bag that holds just my camera with a lens attached.  For example, a good one is a top loader like this one made by Lowepro . It is flexible enough for me to move it around as a squeeze through tight places and it allows me to always have access to my camera.  I have found that cameras that get stashed in my larger climbing pack never get taken out.  Finally, don’t be afraid to bring your tripod.  Yes, it creates more weight, but if you are a fine art photographer like me there is no substitute for a tripod.  Rarely does my tripod get left behind in the car.  Just remember that after a few canyons all of your gear will have a little more character than it did before. 

Cold Water!The water is not only cold in slot canyons but it is more than willing to kill your unprotected camera.


4) Little People Big Canyon

It’s a trick as old as photography, but remember, sometimes a shot just needs a little scale to show how big something really is.  So add a little person to the scenery.  This gives your photo an immediate subject and helps the viewer realize how big or how tight the canyon really is. 

The person rappelling makes this shot. With out him the photo isn't nearly as good.


4) Don’t Be Afraid Of The Dark

Remember that tripod I told you to bring?  Some of the best canyons are the darkest ones.  Don’t be afraid of the dark.   Long exposures, headlamps, and a high ISO can show how dark and spooky slot canyons can really be.  I know everyone likes the glowing orange walls, but sometimes the darkness is where the real story lies. 


Bonus Tip:  Bring a headlamp and use a GPS.  I can’t tell you how handy both have been in my canyoneering adventures.  Check out the Gaia GPS app for your smart phone!  It is one of my favorite tools in the backcountry. 


Happy Canyoneering! 








Andrew Bodily(non-registered)
Great post! You really are skilled Jacob! That snake was pretty sweet to see in Misery as well as the cavern at the end! I might have to revisit that one!
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