The Trophy Shot – a nature and landscape photographers dilemma

Picture: Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

Image: Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

This month I was fortunate to spend a week traveling through Death Valley as the guest of some friends who were leading a photo workshop. We arrived at Zabriskie Point on the first morning, which is one of Death Valley’s prime photographic postcard locations. Zabriskie Point is a true icon, in that it has become one of the ‘must-have’ shots for photographers traveling through the park. It was somewhat disheartening for our small group to crest the hill only to find a large workshop with two dozen other photographers lined up on the hill below and in front of the paved viewpoint. Their presence in front of everyone else made it difficult for anyone who arrived later, or those with mobility issues who were limited to shooting from the paved viewpoint to enjoy or photograph the scene with any sense of unobstructed natural beauty.

A friend remarked to me this week that nature and landscape photography has become like a competitive sport. I found that to be both an incredibly appropriate and sad assessment when discussing those many “must have” icon shots. Seeing this group, who set themselves up to arrive early and get the best location in front of everyone else, seemed to epitomize that competitive urge to ‘get the shot’.

So, “Why do photographers flock to the icons?” With a vast and increasing number of talented photographers out there, the continued hunt for the ‘trophy’ shot seems to draw more and more people to these often limited-sized locations like moths to a flame.

Without passing judgment, as I’ve stood at these icons myself many a time, I sometimes picture us photographers as the great white animal hunters. We seem to all want to show off our own trophy wall, with the heads of bears, boars, deer, elk, buffalo, antelope, guinea pigs, hamsters, and gerbil’s, forever staring out into space with their glazed-over eyes, wall mounted to a wooden trophy plaque. But rather than animals, it’s our shots of Zabriskie Point, or the Racetrack in Death Valley, Tunnel View in Yosemite, Snake River and the Oxbow Bend at the Grand Tetons, and Delicate and Mesa Arches in Utah, to name but a few.

So how do I handle icon shots? If it’s my first time to a location often I’ll visit and shoot the icon, if not just to have my own version of it -but as much to get the need or desire to have that shot out of my system. There’s also the fact that the shots of these places sell, which ironically further compounds and exacerbates the Icon Dilemma, and thereby creating the urge for more and more photographers to get the same shot for themselves.

I walked away that morning with my own decent shot of Zabriskie Point. It’s a nice shot, and some might even call it dramatic. But for myself, there’s absolutely nothing unique or special about it, save for the fact that it nicely recorded my experience and vision of a special place, albeit a place that hundreds of thousands, if not a million or more people and photographers have stood before me.

Picture: Photographers lined up at sunrise, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

Image: Photographers lined up at sunrise, Zabriskie Point, Death Valley National Park, California

As a professional photographer, I’ve always found the greatest reward was walking away from an icon shot with something I consider unique; not something that’s become everyday common. This morning was truly one of those mornings where, when life hands you lemons…, make lemonade. There may be more than million shots of Zabriskie Point out there, but I’m certain there are far fewer which accurately depict the experience of what it’s like to photograph these days at any of the great American landscape icon locations.

But once you’ve gotten that icon shot out of your system, it’s at that point, rather than experiencing a twisted mass of photographic humanity, one which sometimes brings out some of the worst inconsiderate and most selfish behavior of certain photographers, you can turn your attention to experience the real beauty of the place you’re at. After one or two “been there, done that” times at an iconic location, I’ll often just avoid the spot altogether, preferring to seek out my own personal visions and experience. There really is something far more special about photography when you’re not having to worry about getting someplace first, or whether there will even be room for your tripod legs to enjoin the tangled web.

I’d love to hear some of your thoughts; how do you feel about shooting the icons? Is there a dilemma for you between the desire to photograph a true iconic location, yet not wanting to be part of that herd mentality?

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31 Comments on “The Trophy Shot – a nature and landscape photographers dilemma”

  1. Joe Says:

    You nailed my thoughts exactly. Every icon is saturated so finding new icons becomes the challenge. I have a picture similar to the one above from Mesa Arch. I arrived a 5:15 and found 3 photographers with 3 tripods already there, at least they had coffee and were willing to share. :-)

  2. Bret Edge Says:

    Great post, Gary. Living in Moab, and running workshops here as well as in the Tetons, I see this often. Like you, I’ve also photographed many icons and I will continue to do so for the same reason you do – they sell. I’ve tried offering photographs of lesser known locations for sale in my gallery and the fact of the matter is that if people don’t emotionally connect with an image, they generally won’t buy it. So, my gallery walls are lined with iconic photographs. I do enjoy photographing the icons as they achieved such a level of popularity for a reason but I more thoroughly enjoy photographing away from the masses. As an interesting side note, I’m finding that more and more photographers who contact me for a guided tour are looking to avoid the icons, which I see as perhaps the early stages of a sea change. Only time will tell.

  3. Jack Johnson Says:

    Hey, Gary –

    Coming fairly late to landscape photography, I’ve found on occasion that I’ve photographed an icon without even realizing it, not having come across the earlier famous images. Conversely, I’ve had the experience of coming across photos of obscure spots I thought surely nobody but I had bothered to photograph.

    When I knowingly visit an iconic location, I keep in mind the Rifleman’s Creed, “This is my rifle. There are many like it, but this one is mine.” I will make my version of the iconic shot – it’s iconic for a reason! – but also try to find a way to make an image that is only mine. That can be tough at iconic locations; I returned from Mormon’s Row in the Tetons with what I was certain were photos from a unique perspective, only to discover nearly identical images scattered around the internet… :)

    I agree with your assessment of the competitive attitude at iconic locations; I think my only unpleasant encounters with other nature photographers have been at such spots.

    Thanks for another thoughtful article!

    — Jack

  4. Greg Edwards Says:

    Is that Zabriskie Point? I was told that that was Manley Beacon and that ZP is the area to the south of the viewing area. I don’t know, but I’d like to find out. Tks!

  5. Ben Chase Says:

    I think I’ve felt this way for awhile now. Even to the point of totally changing plans I had to go to “icon” locations. I think there is an inherent desire in many, if not all of us, to get “our version” of a particular icon. I’ve been the the Moulton barns and have my own version of those. I’ve been to many of the other locations in the US and Canada that other photographers seem to flock to, and have seen the same thing – tons of other photographers trying to make essentially the same shot.

    Just a week ago, I spent time on both skis and snowshoes in Yellowstone with a 500mm, looking for some new wildlife shots that would be portfolio-worthy. Even on skis out there, I came across a few other people, but it was significantly less than what I encountered on the park road, which is a virtual sea of other photographers trying to do the same thing.

    I think that there is value in shooting the icons for those in the early stages of discovery about what they want to do with their own work. They can evaluate their own “version” of the icon and debate its merits. I found that after awhile, I began to lose interest in shooting the usual locations. At this point, my focus is searching out the more difficult, harder-to-get-to, and less often photographed locations that are often equally beautiful.

    Internally, I feel that I’m in the right place if I see little to no one where I’m shooting now.

  6. Don Giannatti Says:

    I think that we should not think of workshops as anymore than guided photo tours. I do not think more or less of the people who attend. They are not trying to ‘make an awesome shot”, nor are they turning professional. They just want a good photograph.

    They are hobbyists who want to participate in the magic we all love. I cannot hold that against them.

    Asshatted photo tour guides who line their photographers up like in the image here are not ‘competitive’ in the least. They are fools and jerks.

    And fools and jerks are found in every walk of life. Even photo tour leaders.

    I can imagine a half dozen of the photographers I know who do this and absolutely know they would not ‘hog the shot’. They would have found ways for everyone who wanted to get a shot to get it.

    Please be careful of really broad brushes… they tend to paint subject matter that wasn’t intentional.

  7. Richard Wong Says:

    The comment about the “competitive sport” is so spot-on. With all this social media attention people crave for to sell their next workshop, it’s always about one-upping everyone else. Sport it might be, but that ain’t art. I personally get more excited about photographing a non-descript location that has no other photographers roaming around than at some iconic spot that is swarming with photographers.

  8. Joe Hearst Says:

    I am in charge of camera club judges for the San Francisco Bay Area (N4C). I publish a list of available judges and ask each judge for a bio, including a philosophy. Here is mine. I think it is relevant

    PHILOSOPHY: Pictorial photography is an art form. Many of the pictures we see in camera clubs are very well executed photographs of familiar subjects. I believe that it is very good for beginning photographers to strive to achieve images like that to improve their skills, and I’ll certainly reward them accordingly. However, I think that at higher levels, we should have something more. Therefore, at those levels, I exercise my personal taste. I look for images that are beyond the ordinary: photographs of unusual subjects or of familiar subjects seen in an unusual way. If I see two photographs that I think are approximately equal in technical quality, I will give preference to the one that seems to me to be more adventurous and interesting.

    BTW, since you judge for us some times, I’d be glad to have your bio on the list.

  9. Mark Says:

    I imagine it can be hard choice for those leading a workshop, trying to get people to look at more than the iconic shots, when participants show up hoping to go to such and such a spot. The competitive sport aspect is exactly why I don’t go to a camera club anymore. That’s all it was about – what image scored what and who had sour grapes because their magnificent shot didn’t earn the love of the judges that evening.

  10. Wesley Picotte Says:

    Gary, thanks for the thoughtful post.

    I recall characterizing my first trip to the southwest as a right of passage. Going to Zion, Bryce, Escalante, etc., and photographing places I’d seen in stunning images many times over was something I had to do simply to get it out of the way.

    In my neck of the woods, Mount Rainier is about as iconic as you can get, and spending time there with my camera, exploring its power and beauty, is one of my favorite things to do. Yeah, it’s an icon but Jack says, it’s my icon. I love that place and my time there, and don’t care that there are a zillion images of it.

    I also agree with Ben, though. I seek out of the way places, and often point first towards the places that are hardest to get into. True wilderness inspires for me like nothing else and photographing it makes my heart thump. That’s why I do there.

    I’m not a full time photographer and recognize this as a luxury; I imagine that if I made my living exclusively from landscape photography, I might focus more on iconic places that sell.

  11. Greg Russell Says:

    Wonderful thoughts, Gary, and you echo many of my own on this subject.

    My primary problem with photographing the icons is that there is no creativity involved, which to some extent takes away from the artistic aspect of photography (and thus giving more credit to people who claim photography isn’t art). Sure, there is the argument that it’s an image of the icon under “unique conditions,” but didn’t the photographer just get lucky and happen upon the icon at that particular time? Sorry, I still don’t see the creativity.

    The other part of it is–as you mentioned–the crowds. I’ve seen them at Zabriskie, Mono Lake, the bridge in Zion, etc. After contemplation and reflection, I know that I want to make images that are…well…contemplative and reflective. Being around crowds diminishes that experience for me. Now I actively seek out places that are away from the crowds and am surprised (or not?) to find beauty in those places as well.

    All of that said, the icons are icons for a reason. They’re gorgeous. The Racetrack in Death Valley is one of my favorite places on earth. I will visit it many more times before I die, I’m sure. The images probably won’t make it into my portfolio of creative work, but they do make me happy on some level.

    Recently on my blog, I posted some of my own Death Valley images. Only one icon in there because there really is beauty all around us.


    I guess to sum up, I think you hit the nail on the head. There are the obvious “problems” with photographing the icons, but there are the dilemmas of not visiting them for the sake of not visiting them.

  12. Dream Chaser Says:

    Lemmings. But at least they are out there doing it…

  13. Brian Rueb Says:

    Nice piece Gary. I think it’s an odd dilemma. From a personal stand-point, like you I think I want to visit these iconic vistas once or twice, at least until I get something I would be happy with for my portfolio. I don’t particularly LIKE these images, but as a window front of sorts for potential clients, they certainly bring people in the door so to speak. Plus when you do get clients looking for shots from certain locations, often having those ‘icons’ included in your selections will lead to more sales as the companies need to buy those images from SOMEONE. From a rewards standpoint, I find very little reward in images from these iconic vistas. I would much rather find my own take on places, and have those type of images be what I’m known for.
    When I lead workshops, it’s absolutely necessary to utilize these locations. Many folks that are just learning the ins and outs of photography lack the experience to come up with new and original shots in places that lack something iconic. The icons help us as instructors work on composition, and the basic camera settings in a location that will have a higher yield for successful images. A 2-3 day class is not really enough time to do much more than scratch the surface of camera settings, filter use, composition, and then processing those images to their full potential. Often students will leave with only the basics down. If you work too hard on un-iconic locations, I’ve found many students won’t quite nail the right composition, and then they won’t be able to process those images to the point where they LOOK great, so they will ultimately leave with more frustrations, and a “why did I take THAT?” mentality. When we shoot icons, those images will be the ones they enjoy most, others compliment them on more, and that keeps their confidence levels higher…which are all great things for newer photographers to experience.
    Plus it is these icons that normally bring newer photographers to the parks anyway…so to not see them or help them capture them is a disservice to the clients. It’s tough when hoards of people try to show up and photograph a location, and under most circumstances I’ve found simple communication amongst the photographers will alleviate most issues…but it can get ‘competitive’ at times, and it’s unfortunate.

  14. David Chauvin Says:

    This is a nice assessment of shooting icons and the hunter mentality. Hunters line the wall with heads. Birders check off their lists. From the bizarre to the mundane the collector trait seems to be common in humans. Do I have images of Zabriskie? I sure do. Non-photographer friends have no idea of the icon status and enjoy the photos for what they are, a nice representation of a beautiful location. For me they are pleasant reminders of a time and place but hold no deeper meaning. On the last day of my DV trip I went to another iconic spot, Artist Palette. As soon as the sun went behind the rim twenty or so photographers packed up and I had the place to myself to explore in the soft light and watch the first stars appear. Without the crowds the place no longer felt so iconic and I got what might be my favorite image from a week in the park. Is it a unique image? Probably not, simply because of the sheer volume of frames shot there every year. But that is not important because the image has a feel of the peace and quiet I experienced at the time.

    I love the shot of the line up on the ridge. Somehow I do not think that the leader of that particular group gives a rat’s ass about other visitors or the impact on the site. Luckily a fifteen minute hike down the trail leaves 99% of the crowd behind and offers a much better experience. This is a blessing making it very easy to avoid crowds if that is a preference. Those that want to bag the icons are herded together leaving much larger spaces open for those who want to explore and to create meaningful images.

  15. Michael Abbene Says:

    See today’s New York Times (26 Feb 2013) about the people flocking to Yosemite for the “firefall” shot. I also remember a workshop at Bosque del Apache where four different photo classes were “competing” for prime position every morning. It took something out of the experience.

    Someone in the LinkedIn Photography Instructors group raised the question of teaching manners and courtesy in our classes and I definitely agree that we have this responsibility.

  16. Jim Says:

    You made many good points in this post. Large groups of photographers who are ever becoming more aggressive and far less mannered detract largely from the joy of photographing. (If you think Zabriskie Point is bad, try going to the Maroon Bells in Colorado in autumn and you’ll WISH you were back at Zabriskie.) Also, it can often be nearly impossible to photograph such places with a “fresh” view because often times the views are limited. There is only so much physical space at the Gates of the Valley or Tunnel View in Yosemite, or even less at Mesa Arch in Utah. In Arches, the park rangers are obsessed with protecting the Cryptobiotic soil and do not look fondly on photographers or hikers who dare venture off the established trails or paved surfaces.

    More importantly, you mentioned how photos of the icons sell. This is true not only with gallery prints, but with magazines as well. I submit work regularly and more often than not it’s images of familiar landforms in Yosemite, Death Valley, Yellowstone, Grand Tetons, etc. that are bought for publication. The other submitted images are just as good, if not better, but there is some factor that people want to know what they’re looking at, to already be familiar with it, that influences what they want to see and purchase. I’m not sure how to rectify the situation other than to photograph what I love and what is important to me, and let the chips fall where they may.

  17. Richard Chapman Says:

    On the day after Christmas we climbed the hill for the Zabriskie point shots sometime around noon. Not the golden hour, obviously, but the hoardes weren’t lined up, tripods all anchored, as they were in Gary’s shot above. I was tripoded-up shooting warm-ups of warped landforms when a couple of mid-twenties (i’m guessing) Japanese walked down a slope into the scene. I was instantly irritated. But, a couple of frames later, with the zoom backed off a bit, I came to appreciate their presence – for a sense of scale. They added, rather than subtracted. Later, shooting Manley Point, another couple walked into the frame (non-Japanese, this time), and at the bottom of the frame, again, a sense of scale. So, i thought, maybe these aren’t bad events and at any rate, they were what they were.
    But more to the point of this thread, a year ago November we went to great lengths to get up early 20 miles west of Zion to arrive for sunrise at an iconic point highly touted by Lauren Martres. (In November cars are allowed on the shuttle routes.) And guess what, deep into the scene was a field full of photographers. “Down in front” would not have worked and cloning them out with Pshop would not have been the same thing as a well composed photograph with blazing red walls lit by morning. We drove on, after a bit, and my spouse got a wonderful iconic shot of the Watchmen from the little bridge that crosses the Virgin River – while I sat in the car and grumped about photographers who hog the scene.

  18. David Leland Hyde Says:

    Gary, I like the way you present this topic in an open way without leaning too far one way or the other, to spark discussion. That said, I feel too many great photographs can be found everywhere, if we are looking carefully, for it to be necessary to photograph the easy to reach roadside landmarks over and over. There’s nothing wrong with doing a few now and then, but in my book, if it is your main course, it’s lazy and unimaginative. We would be wise with new photographers to inspire them to stretch and reach for more. Also, I am suggesting that photographers in general raise their sights and do something original because this repeating and copying all the time is what causes fans of other types of photography to say landscape photography is just photographing the same subjects over and over. Some believe it’s all been done anyway. However, if we are indeed creative people, why would we intentionally travel the same trail over and over and not find a new way of going or being.

    On the other hand, those of you who feel that photographing icons is necessary for you to make an income from your photography, I hope you keep doing that. I am very, very, very glad you are doing it that way. Why not? Carry on. If you can’t find a way to be both creative and sell a lot of prints, please continue to beat the same locations to death. It’s no problem for me…

    This subject is important and has been addressed quite well elsewhere too. For example, Guy Tal wrote an excellent blog post called, “The Art of Copying” . Greg Russell wrote a superb piece called “Moving Past The Repertoire” landscapephot...reg-russell/ and I wrote a modest proposal called “Make Your Own Tripod Tracks” alpenglowimag...ipod-tracks/

  19. Colleen Miniuk-Sperry Says:

    Thank you, Gary, for this thought-provoking post!

    As Jack Johnson suggested above, “the iconic places are iconic for good reason. They’re gorgeous!” I’d like to think iconic photographs do possess some value, as they are published in magazines, calendars, and postcards. Because of their strong visual attraction, people sometimes decide to visit a location based on the images they have previously seen. And they often pay good money to see it with their own eyes. An acquaintance of mine once said, “People only protect what they love; they only love what they know.” So while I somewhat despise the traffic jam it sometimes creates, maybe it’s creating a connection between a person and nature that might not otherwise exist.

    Photographing a classic scene, though, is much like making a cover of a popular song. There’s the original, and then the spin-offs. Like you, I do try to capture the iconic places in a different light, season, or perspective because they do sell well (!!), but it doesn’t change that they are simply covers of “songs” Ansel Adams, Galen Rowell, David Muench, and the like have already created.

    Where the situation breaks down into a dilemma for me is when photographers try to pass these spin-offs as original. It’s entirely unrealistic to know every possible photograph made of a place no matter how much research you complete before and so you might photograph an icon somewhat accidentally (I laughed out loud, I’ve been on that emotional roller coaster before, Jack!). It is what it is…documentary, perhaps, but not original.

    Worse yet, however, is the bordering-on-ludicrous competition between photographers to record such icons. It’s hard for me to comprehend why anyone would want to line up with 27 other photographers with tripods touching trying to capture a scene thousands, if not millions, have already recorded (your photo of Zabriskie says it all). I can understand the need to document the scene with your own pixels, but once that’s done, move on and start really connecting with the location or subject in your own individual way! And if you’re surrounded by other photographers, there’s no need to throw sand. We can play nice in the sandbox together. Really, we can.

    As a workshop instructor, I see a pretty major difference between a photo tour and a photo workshop. Perhaps it’s semantics, but to me, a tour is a trophy hunt; a workshop is a place to learn and perfect your craft, typically in an inspirational location. Mostly to satisfy students’ curiosity and interests, sure, I’ll bring folks to these classic spots. But I also like to intermix this with locations that aren’t nearly as popular, provide creative challenges, and stretch their imaginations…Why spend money and time trying to copy someone else?!

    You’re right, photography after all isn’t a sport, it’s an art. If we all believe we have something differently to “say” visually, the icons and competition become irrelevant and meaningless. Every single one of us is a unique individual, and our photography should reflect our personal passions, knowledge, and experiences.

  20. David Leland Hyde Says:

    @ Bret Edge

    I meant to mention your blog post from a bit different viewpoint, but one I respect: blog.bretedge...iconography/

    I understand and agree with the aspect of learning by photographing icons. However, if a photographer is to photograph icons, I like your approach of looking for a spot away from the crowds.

    Nonetheless, Ansel Adams, Edward Weston, Brett Weston, Dorothea Lange, Henri Cartier-Bresson, Paul Strand, Imogen Cunningham, Philip Hyde, William Garnett and so on, photographed some icons, but most of their work was unusual, ahead of the field, innovative, different, but it still struck a chord and sold.

    Bret Edge, you have talent and certainly technical aptitude. Go for the tourists visiting Moab, certainly, but also go for the more significant art collector and museums with something truly unusual. I’ve already seen you do unusual work.

  21. Lawrie Says:

    I know exactly what you mean, but my experience is with birds. In the UK when a rare bird turns up, one of the biggest flocks that you will see is birders. I usually turn in to a people watcher at that point although I still photograph the icon/bird

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  23. Jim Lundgren Says:

    Great post Gary. Well thought out and written. When I lived in the Bay Area, I stayed away from Yosemite Valley for nearly the entire time fearing the crowds and the competition for the vistas. For my last trip before moving to Oregon, I journeyed into the chasm and immediately regretted staying away for so long. So much opportunity in such a little area. For me, it helps to change my goal for the shoot from creating something amazing to meeting people just enjoying the “circus” for what it is.

    As for the poor behavior…people are going to be who they are going to be and there is nothing you can do to change that. I really believe stressful situations don’t alter people’s behavior, they only bring their natural tendencies to the surface. I just try to remember it’s just photography…it ain’t like we’re curing cancer here :)

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  25. Inge Fernau Says:

    Well said Gary, I am not one selling oodles of photos and even I am shying away from shooting icons that are overrun by workshops etc (Horsetail Falls in February for example, North Lake in the fall, Yosemite after snow fall). I guess I don’t need “that shot” if I have to “fight” for a tripod hole. I for one never photographed the Horsetail Falls in February, because of the madness, but I did have some unpleasant encounters with photo workshops during the fall in the Eastern Sierra.
    For me it is not the end of the world if I have to walk away without the image (I usually take a photo of all the photog’s lining up….and chuckle to myself). This may not be so easy for a late arriving workshop where you have customers paying for the chance to get the icon shot. Some dilemma.

  26. Peter T. Says:


    First, you ought to retitle that top photograph to: Manly Beacon, Death Valley National Park, California.

    (To refer to it as Zabriskie Point would be like taking a photo of Half Dome from Glacier Point and titling that photo “Glacier Point”)

    But to the main point of your post, there’s nothing that one can really do but accept the fact that many nature and landscape photographers either simply lack a shred of imagination and creativity or are just plain lazy in their photographic endeavors. They want to take the exact same shot as the past masters since either they don’t want to take the time to come up with a new vision of an iconic landmark or don’t have the imagination to do so. It is what it is.

    Fortunately, many iconic landmarks (but not all) are usually positioned well enough and are large enough that many creative shots of them can be taken from many different angles and during different seasons to give a more unique flavor to one’s photographs of those icons.

    But I feel for those leading photography workshops since I think they’re often stuck between a rock and hard place. On one hand, the workshop leader probably would like to take the workshop participants off the beaten path to photograph more unique images. On the other hand, doing so runs the risk of bearing the wrath of many of the workshop participants who want to get the “classic” iconic shot of the landmarks even though hundreds of thousands of other photographers have taken the exact same shot.

  27. Jack Johnson Says:

    Hmmm… Reminds me of a quote by that Sage of the Age, Sheldon Cooper:

    Sheldon: I had to leave. They were having fun wrong.


    — Jack

  28. QT Luong Says:

    Gary, your two friends are photographers recognized for their creativity, who often write & teach about creativity. So aren’t there interesting conclusions to be drawn from the fact that they felt the need to take their workshop participants to such an iconic location ?

  29. Eric Bowles Says:

    Nice article, Gary. I was in Death Valley in early January. As with your experience, there was a group of 8-9 photographers lined up at Zabriskie Point for the typical images.

    One of the things I like about Death Valley is that while there are iconic images, there are a lot of unique images. For example, everyone shoots Badwater Basin, but Cottonball Basin is more varied in terms of compositions. Likewise Devil’s Golf Course requires some imagination since it’s a popular location but there are not iconic images.

    I think every park is like that. My main park is the Smokies – and there are certainly plenty of iconic images in the park – such as fist light at Sparks Lane in Cades Cove or sunset at Morton’s Overlook. An infrequent visitor to the park would be disappointed if they did not walk away with images from the iconic locations. And for workshops, the iconic locations produce satisfied clients. But its easy to fall into the trap of “that’s all there is to photograph”. There is so much more than the iconic images. Capturing an iconic location in a unique way, or creating a new iconic image is a lot more satisfying.

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  31. Eric Says:

    I wonder how much of the “notches in the gun” attitude comes simply from people not knowing where to shoot. If you’ve never been to an area before, and have a limited amount of time, most of us will naturally be drawn to those spots that have the highest profile and (perhaps) a better potential for a good image. In other words, “herd behavior” of photographers is driven by the same thing that drives other herds: the easiest access to a resource.

    It’s tough to go to a new place and figure out how to approach it. It takes a lot of research and — guess what? — the research turns up those iconic shots. In a sense, much of what’s important about a landscape image takes place before you even set up your tripod.

    Someday I’d love to see a book/workshop on how to find those new, possibly-soon-to-be-iconic, images.

    And yes, I love Gary’s new book and hope to visit many of those places myself, so I’m as much of a herder as anyone.


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