Why and How: Photographing Canyon de Chelly In Arizona

If you have the opportunity to travel to the southwestern region of the United States to photograph the mineral landscapes, I highly suggest that you spend some time in the Canyon de Chelly in the state of Arizona.

The pictures you will take of the absolutely beautiful mineral landscapes will enchant your friends and family when you return home.

In this article, I will explain why photographing the Canyon de Chelly is not as easy as it seems. I will also share some tips on how to create interesting pictures that are different from the previous photos you have already taken.

Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona in black and white. Photography by Amar Guillen, Photographer Artist
Spider Rock in Canyon de Chelly in Arizona.

The Little Story Behind This Article

I photographed the Canyon de Chelly for the first time in 2010. I had stopped in the city of Chinle to spend a night on the road while travelling the Grand Canyon.

While talking with the hotel receptionist, I learned that he was from the Navajo tribe. I explained to him that I was a professional photographer and that I was conducting a large photographic project on the National Parks of the United States.

He told me about his family who lived in Chelly Canyon. In English, it should be pronounced Canyon de Chai. When he realized that I knew nothing about this iconic site, he invited me to discover it the following day by joining him on an adventure aboard his four-wheel drive vehicle.

It was a real shock. The canyon is more than 25 miles long (40 kilometers). The cliffs are more than 980 feet high (300 meters). But the aspect that left me the most stunned is certainly the orange color of the rocks. The history of the place is haunting as well. He told me the story of the Navajos who arrived in the 18th century and how they were massacred by Spanish colonists in 1805.

I spent the day with him and his family. It was an incredible experience. I visited the canyon with a private guide. I later learned that visiting the canyon is forbidden if you are not accompanied by a guide. Thus, luck was on my side.

During this first trip, I spent 3 days creating photographs. Since then, I regularly spend at least 3 nights in Chinle to try to capture the extraordinary lights of the Canyon de Chelly. I often came back without having taken a single photo because the lights I desired were simply not present. It is a challenge for sure.

A Few Words About the Canyon de Chelly

As I mentioned in a previous paragraph, Canyon de Chelly is a huge private property. It belongs to the Navajo tribe. If you want to visit the canyon, you must hire a guide. I advise that you hire a private guide. There are group tours, but the quality is quite poor.

This is a national American moment. It was established in 1931.

The word Chelly comes from the Navajo word 'Tseyi' which means canyon, literally meaning 'inside the rock'.

Today, more than forty families live in the canyon. They grow corn and raise cows and horses.

Photographing the Canyon de Chelly

Like most canyons, most of the photos you will capture will be taken from the rims. You will thus have a view of the horizon as well as the interior of the canyon.

The landscapes are absolutely spectacular because they are textured with magnificent orange colors. The details and contrast are extraordinary for a landscape photographer.

Inevitably, you will likely decide to use color for your shots. Most of the photographers I know do this in a way, as it highlights the natural vibrant beauty.

The only problem with using color is that you are going to take photographs that have already been taken thousands of times. All you have to do is search on the internet with the keywords "Canyon de Chelly photographs" to realize that most of the famous images are in color.

Now search with the keywords "black and white photographs of Canyon de Chelly". The choice will be much more restricted.

Personally, I think that black and white allows the photographer to show the beauty of the canyon as well as all its subtleties and nuances.

To carry out this photo project, I was inspired by Edward S. Curtis and Ansel Adams who created photos that I find quite beautiful. I followed in their footsteps to express the similar emotions that I experienced when I contemplated Spider Rock or White House.

The use of black and white allows you, the photographer, to present a more personal perspective of the magnificence and majesty of the canyon.

The main difficulty is to photograph the canyon with a distant horizon. Often, the sky is blue without any clouds. I have participated in several sessions during the last few years in which I have not been able to make a single artistic photo due to the lack of clouds and desired light conditions.

Sometimes I was lucky. Patience paid off. But I spent countless hours waiting for the right light and beautiful clouds.

I often say that clouds are the language of the sky. If they are not present in the picture, it is not possible to speak the photographic language, because the forms of the clouds are so important for communicating emotions and meanings.

Some Pictures of Canyon de Chelly

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge it.

Framing the Canyon de Chelly

When framing and formatting photos of the Canyon de Chelly, anything is possible. Whether it is a 3:2 horizontal format or square format, or vertical format, all are relevant and can be utilized depending on your personal preference.

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The Canyon de Chelly is a true source of inspiration. Let yourself contemplate how the Navajo people live their simple lives. This simplicity may help you to capture the quintessence of the region.

The main difficulty is the management of shadows. Since it is a canyon, you will have to wait for the light to penetrate inside to reveal the shapes. If you photograph early in the morning or late in the evening, you will have gigantic and unsightly shadows. You will have created great imbalances in the masses within your frame.

I believe that the ideal time to photograph is mid-morning or mid-afternoon. I advise you to spend a day looking for lights depending on the location. For example, to photograph Spider Rock, the ideal is in the morning because the shade is beautiful.

The Interpretation of Canyon de Chelly

For me, Canyon de Chelly reminds me of families who lived in the shadow of the past. The lifestyle of the people who live there is based off tradition, it is timeless.

Indeed, when you visit this special place, time will have seemed to have stopped. You will notice that the landscape provides much “food for thought” and contemplation. The first day of each of my trips is devoted to the search for light, waiting, and introspection. I took a few freehand pictures to immerse myself in the atmosphere. I know that I will have to be patient like my predecessors and my masters Curtis and Adams were.

I recommend that you immerse yourself in the history of the Navajo and Pueblo people before you visit this site to better understand and appreciate those who live in the Chelly Canyon. Their fascinating stories, traditions, and rich history will help you to find inspiration to create unique photos.


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