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Trophy Hunting in Utah

Mentally empty or harmless fun?

Andrew Tobin

Andrew is a recovering sports photographer. After covering the 2014 World Cup in Brazil for the UK national newspapers, he chucked it in and decided to shoot for personal enjoyment with a focus on landscape photography. 

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During a recent business trip to Utah I had a free weekend between meetings, so I decided I’d take my camera gear and see what there was to photograph.

Never having been outside the environs of Salt Lake City and Park City, I didn’t know where to go, so I started with Google Maps. Obviously, there are lots of mountains and suchlike, but then I saw these things called National Parks. Two of them specifically seemed within reach – Arches and Canyonlands. A bit more googling and…oh…ah…I see. That’s where THOSE ICONIC IMAGES are taken.

A mission was born – go “Trophy Hunting”. I’m referring to what are called “Trophy Shots” – those images that are taken by millions of people and are so overdone that they are simply everywhere. It’s not my usual modus operandi. I usually target “the other shot”, and look to simplify shapes and textures from otherwise complex landscapes. As a fan of David Ward’s approach of reducing and refining compositions, having a scrum with hordes of others all looking for the same image is too much like my old game of sports photography. But why not for a change? No harm in it and it could well be excellent fun. And anyway, who doesn’t want a shot of Mesa Arch at sunrise, glowing in all its finery? Just because it’s shot to death doesn’t mean it is a bad image. I put together a plan – Mesa Arch, Delicate Arch, and Balanced Rock. Plus anything else I could find, and a few “other shots” if possible.

Photographing Mesa Arch in the “correct” trophy shot manner is a bit of a science. According to the expert trophy hunters, it must be done at dawn, with the sun hitting the rock face below the arch and the reflected light casting a fiery orange/red glow onto the underside of the arch. A small aperture must be used to create a “sun star” which must intersect with the rock to be more obvious. Some cloud cover is useful. Also, it gets VERY BUSY there, so arriving early to set up and “bag” a spot is essential. Plus it was a Saturday. Plus it was a holiday weekend. Thus I set my alarm for 3:30am the following day, and arrived at the arch at 4:15am, the first one there. Hooray! Note that there was nobody at the park entrance that early, so entrance was free. Bonus. Plus the twisty road up there is rather good fun.  

It’s not my usual modus operandi. I usually target “the other shot”, and look to simplify shapes and textures from otherwise complex landscapes.

I bagged my spot by placing my tripod in the location I’d recce’d the previous evening, and after checking the position of sunrise with the excellent Sky Guide app. This would ensure I got the “correct” window into the view beyond, and the sun star, and the arch. It was a bit like bagging a pitchside spot at a football match actually. 



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  • Paul Arthur

    Interesting report – I had many of the same issues on a lightning rush through Arizona and Utah in August of this year. Probably 2000 people there for sunset at Horseshoe Bend, a huge crowd at upper and lower Antelope Canyon, a crush on the bridge in Zion, and so on and so on.

    Social media and digital photography has made it extremely difficult to find solitude in what was once wilderness – just see what has happened to Iceland over the last decade.

    Most of us are a product of the increased popularity though, so I for one can’t really complain about it – without it, I probably wouldn’t be doing it for a living… I do wonder where it will end up though.

  • Adam Pierzchala

    I agree with everything that Paul says, also Mr. T two of your “other” shots from Mesa Arch put the trophy shot to shame. Having said that, I can well imagine the fun you had and thankfully you had polite people there to keep it all sane. However the thought of those crowds really puts me off going there. It was precisely large crowds that ruined my experience of both Antelope Canyons, but then we struck lucky at Horseshoe Bend with relatively few people getting in the way.

  • tobers

    Thanks both. It was very good fun though, but I did enjoy the “other shot” thing better – much more challenging and interesting!

    I think a weekday winter dawn at Mesa Arch with a sprinkling of snow would be amazing, and quiet too.

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