Saturday, July 2, 2011

Shooting Slot Canyons with a Medium Format Tech Camera

Schneider 35mm f/5.6 1.0 ISO 50

I had a conversation with a friend of mine regarding what I wrote about the dangers of being in a slot canyon and felt I should add something.  Being in a slot canyon is dangerous if you come unprepared.  Much like people who every year attempt to hike Bright Angel Trail in the Grand Canyon wearing flip-flops or high heels, or carry little to no water or any combination; and yes I seen it and not only at the Grand Canyon.  We go out with more water than we think we need just in case; just in case we spend more time than we originally thought but also to give people water we don't need.  It's called being prepared for your environment.  You can be in an area that's totally dry - hadn't seen a drop of rain for weeks or months and think you're safe entering a slot canyon.  And for the most part you are.  Except you also need to check the weather not only in your immediate area but outside it as well.  One of the biggest dangers in a slot canyon is flash floods that are created miles away from where you are.  We've seen big railroad ties wedged into cracks high above our heads (in some cases 20 feet higher).  The message I want to get across is that while a slot canyon can be an extremely dangerous place to be you can mitigate that danger with common sense.  It'd be a real shame to miss the beauty of a slot canyon; so if you're in the area of one you should try to see it - just be careful.

Another warning.  It'll be very dusty in a slot canyon.  Remember you'll be anywhere from 10 to 100 feet below ground and while you might not feel the wind blowing, it could be on the surface.  That wind will blow sand into the slot canyon where you're standing and get into places you don't want it to be.  You can take precautions; however this is the nature of the beast so expect to emerge dusty, sandy and dirty.  But it'll be worth it!

Schneider 35mm f/8  1.0 ISO 50

This edition centers around using a tech camera (in this case a Cambo WRS1000) and digital medium format back (Phase One 60megapixel P65+) and a wide-angle 35mm Schneider lens with a centerfilter attached.  

Schneider 35mm  f/8 1/4 ISO 100

I normally use a heavy tripod whenever I use the Cambo however I knew on this trip I'd have to go for a lightweight smaller one.  My main heavy-duty tripod is a Gitzo GT5540LS with a Arca Swiss Cube attached.  This tripod extends to eye-level which considering I'm 6-9 is rather tall.  The trade-off is the weight and the foot print of the legs when fully extended.  The lighter tripod is also a Gitzo, an older GT2540 with a Really Right Stuff BH40 ballhead attached.  The main trade off is the height and light weight.  I just bend over for the height and hook my backpack to it to better secure the weight.  I found the BH40 to be a good compromise as  I can mount either the M9 or Cambo on it.

Schneider 35mm f/8 1/4 ISO 100

Here's a little more information on the rest of the equipment I used not only in Page but while I was hiking in Bluff. While Phase One sent a great bag a couple weeks ago and I did use it in the Ohh Ahh Point hike I decided to use my Click Elite bag for this trip mainly because I can carry a 3 liter (100 oz) water bladder. The bag not only carried my main water supply it also carried my tech camera with lens, shutter cables, extra batteries, snacks, gloves, GPS (Garmin), Sat Phone (Iridium), monocular (Vortex 10x36), Leica Disto D5 laser meter, small tools and a change of socks. Yeah I believe in being prepared.

Schneider 35mm f/8 1/4 ISO 100

I found using the Cambo much easier here than the M9 since with the M9 I'd have to use the rangefinder to find a focal point. Using the Leica D5 I'd set the tripod up then laser the distance from the lens and set the focus to the measurement. I found this turned out to be much faster after I got the hang of it. I attempted a couple of shots where I wanted to test focus stacking and have provided 2-samples here. I tried to shoot as low an ISO as possible and ended up not going over 100 for the majority of the shots. The images were shot from 1.4 second to 1 full second which I believe turned out well. The samples were all originally opened in Capture One before processed in CS5 and Nik Viveza 2.

2-image focal stack Schneider 35mm f/5.6 1.0 ISO 50
2-image focal stack Schneider 35mm f/5.6 1.0 ISO 50

Based on my 2-day shooting experiences using both the Leica M9 and Cambo I prefer the Cambo even though I ended up carrying extra weight. The only caveat is that I'd need to be in a slot canyon with way less traffic otherwise the Leica M9 wins out.

I hope to hike Buckskin Gulch soon and have every intention of using my tech camera.

Looking into an furnace
Schneider 35mm f/8 1/4 ISO 100
Once again I'd like to thank you for allowing me to share the experiences of photographing the southwest. Please remember your comments, questions and suggestions are always welcome.



  1. Awesome photos! I wish I could have been there with you and Ken.

  2. Hopefully next time Rafa! I'd love to see what you or Ken could do with a figure model inside a slot canyon...