“Trophy” shots

Flowers and Red Rocks, Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

Flowers and Red Rocks, Horseshoe Bend, Colorado River, Arizona

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In my recently completed Hawaii Big Island workshop, the topic of “trophy shots” came up. (My definition of a trophy shot is a prominently displayed photograph of a scene captured previously by someone else.) Often these are “iconic” tourist scenes, places like Tunnel View in Yosemite, Old Faithful in Yellowstone, Delicate Arch in Arches, or Niagara Falls (I could go on). But with the digital-fueled photography renaissance, it seems that the number of trophy destinations has grown proportionally. For example, long an anonymous waterfall on El Capitan’s southeast flank, Horsetail Fall now draws thousands of photographers to Yosemite each February. And if you’ve ever jostled for position in front of Canyonlands’ Mesa Arch at sunrise, or at Antelope Canyon’s dazzling midday heavenly beam (below), you’ve been an active participant in a trophy hunt.

This isn’t an indictment of trophy photography—heaven knows I have my share of trophy-qualifying images. It’s more about me puzzling why so many photographers pursue them with such passion, and display them with such pride. To me the joy of photography isn’t duplicating what others have already done, it’s looking for something new, especially at frequently photographed locations. Of course these famous shots draw many photographers to my workshops, and I do my best to help them bag their trophy. Nevertheless, my challenge to workshop students is always, rather than make the trophy your goal, make it your starting point.

If the standard view is horizontal, look for something vertical; if it’s wide, try a telephoto. Chances are, if this shot is so special, there’s lots of other special views and subjects nearby. Challenge yourself to find a unique foreground, a different angle, or simply turn around and see what’s behind you.

Regrettably, some of my very favorite images, the images that give me the most satisfaction, are met with shrugs, while my trophy shots like Horsetail Fall and Antelope Canyon, compositions that are a dime a dozen, are among my most popular. Sigh. But when I decided to do landscape photography for a living, I started with a personal promise to only photograph what I want to photograph. And frankly, if someone else has done it, I just don’t get that much pleasure from re-doing it. Sometimes I’ll use the trophy compositions to warm up, but it seems the longer I do this, the more inclined I am to simply leave my lens cap on unless I see something I’ve never seen before.

Among the trophy destinations that I frequent each year is Horseshoe Bend near Page, Arizona. On my first visit I got my trophy shot, and on subsequent visits I’ve sometimes tried to upgrade that composition if I think conditions are better than I’ve had before, but with each visit I spend less time repeating previous efforts and more time looking for something new. Which is how I ended up with the image at the top of this post.

Spring Reflection, Horseshoe Bend, Arizona

Spring Reflection, Horseshoe Bend, Arizona :: This is my Horseshoe Bend trophy shot. On this spring morning I did my best to use the broken clouds and sunlit cliffs reflecting in the Colorado River, and a solitary clump of wildflowers in the red rocks, to set my version apart from the thousands of similar compositions that preceded me.

Rather than limit myself to the “standard,” sweeping, (breathtaking) full horseshoe (Spring Reflection, above), I looked for something in the foreground to emphasize. I found a little clump of yellow flowers clinging to the cliff, 2,000 vertical feet above the Colorado River. Taking most of the bend out of the frame allowed me to use the foreground rocks to frame the flowers and guide your eye to the clouds building in the distance. Unfortunately (for sales), removing the horseshoe from Horseshoe Bend means this image won’t resonate with nearly as many people, but that’s okay.

Heavenly Beam, Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Heavenly Beam, Antelope Canyon, Arizona :: Here’s my Antelope Canyon trophy shot. It really is an amazing scene that sells lots of prints, but there’s really nothing in it to set it apart from the thousands of others just like it.

Heavenly Beam, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona

Bathed in Light, Upper Antelope Canyon, Arizona :: While not dramatically different, at least this Antelope Canyon image is my own. I found it by looking up, over the heads of hundreds of other photographers lined up to get their trophy shot.

I’m not trying to portray myself as a creative genius (call me an aspirational creative genius)—I imagine that many of my “unique” images aren’t completely unique. But at least they’re my own (if others preceded me, they did so without my knowledge). We all take pictures for different reasons, and if the trophies give you the most pleasure, go for it. But honestly, does the world need another sunset from Tunnel View (guilty)? Or salmon-catching grizzly from Katmai National Park (not guilty)? If you’re trying to set yourself apart as a photographer (and maybe even make a few dollars doing it), look beyond the trophies to show the world something it hasn’t seen before. I may not be there yet, but that’s what keeps me shooting.

5 Comments on ““Trophy” shots

  1. I totally agree with you. My family did a lot of world travel after they retired and there are albums filled with many hundreds of nearly interchangeable shots of one or the other (or occasionally both) of them with a nearly identical pose in front of some “trophy” location… the Eiffel Tower, the Golden Gate Bridge, Denmark’s Mermaid… etc. I can’t help but wonder if it doesn’t have something to do with bragging rights, or proof that, yes indeed, you were really there?

  2. Pingback: Things You’ll Find Interesting December 18, 2012 | Chuq Von Rospach, Photographer and Author

  3. Pingback: Where did you get those shoes? | Eloquent Nature by Gary Hart

  4. Your latest post (announced by email) resulted in the frustrating error 404 (page not found), but it did show up in the email.

    I agree that it might seem that the trophy shots may appear to be more popular, but then I can’t help but wonder if you’re not just ahead of the herd and creating the next wave of trophy shots in your search for the unique beauty in different locations, or a different way of seeing a trophy location. There’s an inherent beauty in your vision that people must respond to on some level. I can’t help but wonder if that isn’t what the herd is trying to capture by imitation.

    I had the great good fortune of visiting many of the trophy locations back in the 70s before they were discovered. I’ve even seen you or Don echo a shot I took near the Visitor Center at Zion (sadly my photographic skills and equipment were sadly lacking in those days) and scanning them didn’t help matters any.

    I just did a return trip to northern Utah (where I lived for 14 years) and I can’t help but wonder if the Wasatch Front might not become a trophy hunting ground some day. The views of the mountains can be jaw dropping, given the right lighting and figuring out a way to get past the encroaching urban sprawl. http://wp.me/pXX8J-2fV

    Thanks for all the wonderful posts you do. I’ve learned much from them. Your unique shots might not be as popular, but I certainly appreciate them more than the trophies.

    I’m not sure what set this rant off, but I surely loved the “where did you get those shoes” reference! 😉

    • That post was made in error and will appear again when it’s complete, I hope sometime within the next day or two.

      There’s nothing inherently wrong with trophy shots (I have my share), but their pursuit limits photographers who aspire to earn money or recognition with their photography.

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