What is “combat photography” and how to survive it

Zabriskie Point Sunrise, Death Valley, CA
Zabriskie Point Sunrise, Death Valley, CA

First, this blog is in no way disrespectful to actual combat photographers past, present and future.  If you are the average photographer, your battles will be more close to home AND will be with other photographers.  You know what I mean.  When you go to popular spots or been on a photography workshop, no doubt you have experienced “combat photography.”  If you have not had this experience, here is what its like AND what you can do to survive it.

I was reminded of the “combat photography” idea the other morning as we approached Zabriskie Point in Death Valley 30 minutes before sunrise.  We were with our friends and fellow photographers Mark McDermott and Cat Larrea (check out their excellent websites).  Cat actually told us about the term “combat photography” several years earlier when we were together at North Lake (see below).

The parking lot was already a quarter full and I felt a bit late.  For those of you in the know, the best place to stand is below the look-out platform.  As we approached “the spot” there were already 5 people there and just enough room for the four of us.  I hurried into position and was prepared to defend our spot against other photographers who would crowd in.

With each minute more and more people showed up and all of the good positions were gone. Mary walked away for a moment to shoot east and an eager photographer starting running toward her spot with all of his gear dangling around him.  It took both Mark and I to physically get in his way and use our outdoor voices to tell him the spot was taken for my wife.  It could have gotten ugly, but with the two of us, I think we could have taken him.  He slumped his shoulders and turned away to take a spot to the right of us, but clearly inferior.  By sunrise there were nearly 100 people at Zabriskie Point jockeying for position.  Some moved about constantly and others just held their ground.

I use the following criteria to determine the severity of the combat photography – Access, Space, Popularity, Position, and Time.  Here with, are some of our combat photography experiences:

Pheiffer Beach Arch, Big Sur, CA

1212_PSA_Big Sur_695

Big Sur is a destination spot, so it can be both desolate and crowded depending on the season.  Pheiffer Beach is easy to get to and has a decent sized parking lot.  It is a short flat walk to the arch.  There is plenty of space and no one perfect spot.  I have seen good photos from both the left and right sides and most of the tourists line up right in the middle.  Fun and easy.

1212_MFA_Big Sur_052-Edit

Zabriskie Point, Death Valley, CA

A big parking lot and a short walk, along with a breath taking view, makes this site very easy access.  It is very popular.  There is a lot of room, but there are only about 8-10 great positions.  This is really a sunrise shoot, so the early morning keeps away most tourists, but brings out the photographers.  Best location in Death Valley.  Hard to mess this one up if you arrive early.

This is the best place to set up below the viewing platform
This is the best place to set up below the viewing platform

The Virgin River and Watchman from the Bridge in Zion

The Watchman and Virgin River
The Watchman and Virgin River

There is a small parking lot – only room for five cars or so, but there is a bus stop right across the street and a parking lot about a mile away.  There is 2-3 really good positions on the right side, and about 15 others.  The left side is not good at all.  This is a sunset shoot and is the iconic photo of the Watchman, so it is really popular and crowded.  It is on an active street and the Rangers really police you to stay off of the street. If you do not get here an hour or more before sunset, you do not get the shot.  Tense, but manageable.

Photographers on the Bridge
Photographers on the Bridge

Mesa Verde National Park, CO

Mary and I have thes best spots.  The guy in the middle nearly knocked Mary over.  The guy on the right got the best spot at Square Tower House.
Mary and I have the best spots. The guy in the middle nearly knocked Mary over. The guy on the right got the best spot at Square Tower House a few hours later.

There are a few very nice look out spots for the main attractions – Spruce Tree House, Cliff Palace, Balcony House, and Square Tower House.  But be forewarned, at Cliff Palace and Square Tower House, there is only 1-2 great spots that are about a foot wide.  Mary and I battled a few people to get these spots and were forestalled at Square Tower House as one of the other photographers “hogged” the best spot while the sun set.  Of course, we had done the same thing to him at Cliff Palace a few hours earlier.  Karma is a bitch.

The only way to get this shot is to be on the far right side.
The only way to get this shot is to be on the far right sideof the viewing platform

The Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, UT

Again, the most popular arch.  Huge sitting area, but about half the people are serious photographers and half are hikers and tourists.  There are plenty of good positions and the seating area is tiered like a stadium.  Thankfully, as the light decreases, so do the tourist shots and soon the photographers start yelling at the tourists to get out of the way.  After a long hike, nerves can be frayed.  Not peaceful.  (see our log about the Delicate Arch)

There were over a hundred people around the arch on this night
There were over a hundred people around the arch on this night

North Lake, Eastern Sierra Nevada, CA

This shot was made popular by Galen Rowell.  We showed up a full hour before sunrise and it was cold.  We needed to get there early because there are only about ten good positions.  There is a very large parking lot and it is a very short flat hike, and everyone wants the Galen Rowell shot.  The day we were there, nearly a hundred photographers showed up and it was tense as the late-comers started to spread into my frame.  Yelling ensued.  Unpleasant.

There were over a 100 photographers lined up on the shore
There were over a 100 photographers lined up on the shore

The upper Antelope Slot Canyon, Page , AZ

You have seen the photos, now know the truth.  You must be on a guided tour by a native American and endure a short, but jarring four-wheel drive trip in a 30 year old truck.  There are hundreds of people in the canyon with about 25% serious photographers.  You have to use a tripod because of the long exposures and you are with 10-15 other people crammed tripod-to-tripod, trying to get the same photo – along with the hundreds of other people and guides.  Mary had her tripod leg kicked several times during 30 second exposures.  There is a lot of yelling and a lot of physically holding people back.  Your guide will do most of the work, but be prepared.  Pandemonium.

AZ 23

Some Quick Advice

Do your research and be prepared mentally for the crowds.  Have a plan and know where you want to position yourself.  If you are on a workshop, ask the leader and push to the front, but also share after you get your shot.  If you are out of position, use humor, humility, and a good story to politely squeeze in.  I once had a frantic guy run up toward me on the Sentinel Bridge in Yosemite- shooting sunset of Half Dome – about being here with his girlfriend and they had just got engaged under Yosemite Falls, and also wanted to photograph the sunset.  I had the best spot on the bridge because I had been there already two hours.  I looked at him and his new fiancee and was happy to squeeze them in.  Oh ya, ALWAYS GET THERE EARLY!

So, tell us about your worst combat photography experience AND send photos if you have them.

To see more of our photographs, please go to www.pamphotography.com.


  1. cormack

    Glacier Point at Yosemite was beautiful but stressful – about 100 other photographers and at least three workshops going on. At least the workshop leaders would scold people for standing in front of people’s tripods.

    Horseshoe Bend was scary, people pushing against you to take pictures while you’re standing on the edge of the cliff.

    Cades Cove in the Smoky Mountains was frustratingly crowded.

    Empire State Building at sunset was I think the worst, people were literally pushing me out of the way and trying to squeeze into where I was standing.

    1. pamphotography

      Wow – it sounds like you really encountered a lot just trying to make a photograph. We had the same experience at Horseshoe Bend. One parent actually put their toddler in between our tripod legs and tried to take a photo from that angle – we were right up on the rim. They told us they wanted the same shot we had, but with their kid in it……It was scary, and I was mad that they would do that to their kid. I was disappointed to hear they put up a fence around the perimeter, but I totally understand. I know Peter and I go back and forth, excited that people are out experiencing nature and the world, but that Instagram is creating a totally different experience.

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