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Why and How: Photographing Canyon de Chelly in Arizona

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

You will take pictures of absolutely beautiful mineral landscapes that 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 give you some tips on how to create interesting pictures that are different from the ones 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 to 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. In front of my ignorance of this place which apparently was iconic, he invited me to discover it the next day on board his four-wheel drive.

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. 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.

Finally, for 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 were not there.

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 you to take 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 'inside the rock'.

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

Photographing the Canyon of Chelly

Like most canyons, most of the photos you will take 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 very tormented with magnificent orange colors. The textures and details are extraordinary for a landscape photographer.

Inevitably, you will think about color for your shots. Most of the photographers I know do this in a way that seems natural.

The problem 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 photos 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 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 beautiful. I followed in their footsteps to express what I felt when I contemplated Spider Rock or White House.

The black and white allows to give an account 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 done several sessions during the last few years during which I have not been able to make a single artistic photo.

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, photographically speaking.

Some Pictures Of Canyon de Chelly

Click on a thumbnail to enlarge the image.

Framing and Formats to Photograph the Canyon de Chelly

Everything is possible from 3:2 horizontal format to square format and vertical format.

The Canyon de Chelly is a true source of inspiration. Just let yourself go and see how the Navajo people live to capture the quintessence of the region.

The main difficulty is the management of shadows. As 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 have created great mass imbalances.

The ideal time for me 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 is like the families that live in its bowels. It is timeless. Time seems to have stopped. Everything is in contemplation.

The first day of each of my trips is devoted to the search for light, waiting and introspection. I take 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 to understand how to live in the Chelly Canyon. These stories will help you find the inspiration to create photos that will be unique.


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