November 2014, Coyote Buttes North (The Wave) - Mark Venner Photography

Event Overview

While our first trip and review of the Coyote Buttes North (CBN) permit area was done in August of 2014, right in the heat of summer, our most recent trip was in what felt like the heart of winter; in November 2014.  The differences in weather were stark, and that difference in weather led to a completely different photographic experience.  In addition to photographing in the CBN permit area we also visited both North and South Antelope Canyon.  We camped out one night near the Wire Pass trailhead.


South / North Antelope Canyon

Having only been to these areas before in the summer months, I was blown away by how different the canyon's looked in winter light.  The light of the low winter sun was quite a bit less intense.  This gave the slot canyons, particularly North Antelope Canyon, a much colder feel and look.  

In North Antelope Canyon if you wanted to photograph a piece of sandstone that was being lit by what one could call "good" light, then you better be prepared to shoot up; straight up.  To better define "good" light, I was say that is light that is within 3 or four bounces of direct sunlight; and could also include some direct sunlight.  This nearly direct light and reflective light is was tends to cause the gorgeous color variation in the sandstone.  If the light is solely direct, and the camera is set to expose correctly on that portion of sandstone, then other portions of the sandstone in the frame will be drastically underexposed.  If the light is too far away from the first couple of "bounces" then the rock will appear to be dull as it is only "in the shadow" of the light.

Overall for North Antelope Canyon I preferred the summer light.  The dramatic light rays and colors are very appealing for me.  While I can see the appeal of the winter light, if I had a choice I would choose the summer for a visit.  All of that, and the crowds are just as intense in the winter as they are in the summer, so one doesn't even get a break from that perspective.

In South Antelope Canyon I found just the opposite to be true.  I found the lighting to be particularly pleasing in the entrance, Lion, chamber and also in a couple of the portals further up the Canyon.  While the Lady in the Wind was in better light in the early morning summer sun as apposed to the late afternoon winter light, I found the rest of the South Canyon to be lit better in the winter as apposed to the summer.  It seems this is due to the difference in depth between the North and South portions of the canyon, with the South Canyon being noticeably less deep overall.  I particularly enjoyed the winter light in South Antelope Canyon, the crowds were more reasonable to navigate, and the subject matter was just as awesome if not better.

North / South Antelope Canyon

Coyote Buttes North (The Wave)

As I said in the overview, this trip was made in what felt like the heart of winter.  The primary goal of this trip was to photograph the southern slot of the Wave formation.  

During this visit, an arctic cold air mass  settled in over the permit area.  This weather came with an overnight show in the form of a larger thunderstorm, fully featured with hail that pelted our tent for about an hour on the night prior to our permitted entry.  I snapped a camera phone picture of the hail piled up at the corner of our tent.  

To me the thunderstorm was a real treat.  While some in our travel party were a bit weary, we all pulled through none the worse for wear.  It was particularly neat to see the contrast of the crystal clear sky directly overhead after the storm had just passed, and at the same time be able to see the ominous thunderclouds just off to the east.  I was a bit worried that this moisture would negatively impact the photographic opportunities the next day, and while it did have an affect I was still able to meet my primary goal of photographing the southern slot of the Wave formation.

One very positive aspect of this cold weather was the sand was frozen for the predawn hike out to the Wave.  This made hiking through the deep sand, particularly of the last uphill, quite a bit less strenuous.  Once we arrived we saw three large ice ponds in the center of the main "dance floor" of the Wave formation.  This was ok, as photographing the main portion of the formation was not a goal of this trip (we did that in August as that is when the high summer sun illuminates this area the best, and also when permits are in the most demand).  I was pleasantly surprised to see there was no standing water in the southern slot of the formation as it was my goal to photograph this portion of the Wave.

For this southern slot portion of the wave, the best light is one to two hours after sunrise.  This is when good reflective light is bouncing off the large east facing wall of the main Wave formation and in to the southern slot.  The colors in the slot really pop, all the way from deep purple and red, to bright yellow and orange, and every shade in between.  

I have come to see this southern slot portion of the Wave formation as the best part of the formation and the least valued.  From my perspective this is because "good" light occurs in the morning, not in the mid afternoon (when most people arrive).  Additionally, the window for good light is quite a bit shorter, 30 minutes at best, and when the slot is out of the "good" light window the colors do not pop nearly as much.  In midday the direct sun creates too much washout and high contrast, and in the sunrise / sunset timeframe there is not enough light to rescue the colors from the shadows.

I hope to make another trip in the Spring / Summer timeframe to not only shoot again in the southern slot, but also to have the opportunity to photograph the second wave more in pre-dawn light.

Coyote Buttes North (Southern Slot)