In the video above, Pro Photographer Gordon Laing talks about the beauty of traveling light (read Original Post). As the editor at CameraLabs.com, Gordon has his choice of virtually any camera in the world with which to travel, but recently he’s become a fan of Micro 4/3 Mirrorless cameras due to their small size, abundance of features, high image quality and great lens selection. But can a guy who’s carrying around a small camera that’s barely bigger than an iPhone really be taken seriously? On a recent trip to Antelope Canyon, Gordon finds out the hard way that some people have yet to embrace the mirrorless revolution (don’t worry though… this story has a happy ending).
Here’s how Gordon tells the story…
Antelope Canyon – got a mirrorless camera? No permit for you!
I spent a lovely hour at Lower Antelope Canyon near Page in Arizona this morning. Antelope Canyon is a famous slot canyon carved by flash floods which have exposed beautifully coloured rock walls with grooved surfaces. The canyon itself is a narrow passageway about two stories deep and around a couple of meters wide. In places you have to squeeze your self through, but unlike caving there’s rarely a feeling of claustrophobia. If you can climb down some narrow stairs, you’ll have no problem paying a visit.
Antelope Canyon is probably most famous for beams of sunlight, which at the right time of day and year can create dramatic-looking tubes of light, shining down through the fine dust. As such it’s become a mecca for photographers and tourists alike.
There’s actually two Antelope Canyons: Upper and Lower, located on opposite sides of a main road. A quick turn off and you’re there moments later. They’re Navajo National Parks and you’ll need to pay a fee to enter. Upper Antelope Canyon is widely regarded to have ‘better’ sunbeams, and as such is the more crowded of the two. I wanted to avoid or at least minimize the crowds, so headed to Lower Antelope Canyon. I should also add that having seen lots of photos of the sunbeams in the canyons, I now find them a little contrived or even cheesy. Impressive, yes, but I just don’t really like the effect. For me I much prefer to avoid the sky, ground and sunbeams altogether, and instead focus on the beautiful, abstract swirly patterns and colours. I don’t even want it to be immediately obvious which way up the image should be.
I knew what to expect in terms of pictures as I’d visited Lower Antelope Canyon a few years ago during November. It was very quiet then and I think I was pretty much alone down there other than about five other photographers. Back then I took my Mamiya 7II medium format film camera. This time was a different story. It’s been a surprisingly warm October and also a lot busier than I expected; indeed it’s been hard to find accommodation in some towns. As I drew-up to Lower Antelope Canyon parking area, there were already a lot of cars present and a small queue at the entry.
For safety reasons, both Canyons are only accessible by tours, in groups of around 20 people, leaving every 15 minutes or so. The fee at Lower Antelope Canyon in October 2012 was $26 USD for entry and a tour lasting about an hour. I believe Upper Antelope Canyon is more expensive.
Photographers will however be pleased to learn there’s another option. You can request a permit which allows you to enter and ‘self-guide’ for up to two hours. This is what I did the first time I visited, and what I wanted to do again, but today was different. I’d already been identified as a potentially serious photographer due to my tripod, but then the man in the ticket office asked to see my camera. I produced my Panasonic GX1 to which he asked ‘does that have a mirror?’ ‘No!’ I proudly replied, to which he said ‘then you can’t have a permit’! He then explained that permits were only granted to people carrying DSLRs or film cameras, especially larger formats. This makes sense as it separates the serious photographers from the tourists with the point-and-shoots on wobbly tripods. To keep the crowds flowing through the Canyons, the latter would be kept in tour groups, while only the former would be allowed to roam free.
It’s a fine idea, but like all these things, where do you draw the line and importantly which side will you be on? Well, the managers of Antelope Canyons in their wisdom drew the line with mirrors. I was actually told I could not have a self-guided photographer’s permit because I had a mirror-less camera. I of course tried to explain my camera was every bit as serious as a DSLR in terms of quality, control and lens choice, but he was adamant: no mirror, no permit.
I really didn’t want to join a group of 20 others, so he offered me another option: a private tour with my own guide. It sounded expensive, but in fact cost the same as a group tour! So off I went with Reuben, my guide, who turned out to be a photographer himself, although one who also strongly believed mirrors were the way forward.
As it happened, it all worked out really well. Despite our initial differences of opinion, I soon warmed to Reuben and I think he was at least bemused, if not actually interested in my ramblings about future camera trends. More importantly he knew all the good angles in the Canyon and while I normally don’t like being advised which direction is best for the shot, he did point out a lot of angles and compositions I’d not noticed. He also listened to my preference of no sky or ground.
I should also add that during my time down there, two or three tours shuffled past and I was impressed to see their guides allowing plenty of time for all the photographers in the group to set up their shots. It didn’t seem rushed at all or creatively compromised, other than being in a group environment. Many also had cameras with mirrors and decent tripods! Interestingly I met with some people who’d visited Upper Antelope Canyon at the exact same time and they had a much less enjoyable experience, describing it as a zoo at times and noted several photographers being told to hurry up! Then again it easy to get lost in the experience, but it did reinforce my view that despite the fewer sunbeams, the Lower Canyon is a nicer overall choice.
So what do you need when you’re down there? Technically speaking the Canyons benefit from very wide angle shots. They can be dusty too, so you probably don’t want to be swapping lenses down there. You’ll also want to shoot with small apertures for a nice large depth-of-field, and thankfully the subject matter won’t be greatly affected by diffraction, so feel free to use f11, f16 or even smaller. Small apertures and low light levels will however result in long exposures, typically of at least a few seconds if you’re using the lowest ISOs for the best quality, so a tripod is absolutely necessary.
As you already know, I took my Panasonic GX1 and as luck would have it, I was travelling with the perfect lens for the job: the Lumix 7-14mm ultra wide zoom, equivalent to 14-28mm. I had these mounted on my Gitzo 1514T traveller tripod with Markins ball head. I took lots of single exposures, but also captured some bracketed sequences just in case I choose to apply some evil HDR techniques at a later date!
The photo you see here is just one I’ve quickly grabbed from my selection today: it’s a single exposure of 1.6 seconds at f10 and 160 ISO (the base for the GX1). The lens was set to 28mm equivalent and the white balance set to daylight. There’s minimal processing other than a slight tweak of the levels, so what you’re looking at is very close to what came straight out the camera and what I saw in person. I hope to share some of the better ones at a later date, but really wanted to discuss my entry experience with you sooner rather than later!
I’m really pleased with the photos I took today in my brief hour exploring Lower Antelope Canyon, and also happy with my private tour. Ultimately though I remain concerned by the management’s judgment call on what constitutes a serious camera – or at least one serious enough to allow an independent permit. The guy behind the counter knew what he was looking for, and had already identified my camera as mirror-less before even asking. Last time I visited with a medium format film camera, which ticked all the right boxes for the permit, but this time my choice of camera actually prevented the access I desired.
I genuinely believe mirror-less cameras are the future, and while it’ll take a while before they dominate DSLRs, more and more of us will start using them as our cameras of choice, especially when travelling. I’ve always enjoyed jesting with friends about who’s carrying the most ‘serious’ camera, or chatting with pros who often feel they have to carry a big camera to be taken seriously by clients, but this is the first time I’ve been inconvenienced or potentially compromised due to my choice of carrying a mirror-less camera. Has anyone experienced anything like this anywhere else? Either way, if you’re planning a trip to Antelope Canyon, the message is clear: if you want a photographer’s permit, make sure you have a mirror.
Editors Note: The Panasonic GX1 is a great camera that will produce AMAZING QUALITY pictures and video from it’s tiny body. It’s feature rich yet easy to use, and it’s one of our favorite cameras of the last year. Best of all, since the GX2 is expected to launch soon, the price of the GX1 has come down dramatically.