“We have a saying about this area,” Tom Till tells me. “It never sucks.”
One of America’s most celebrated landscape photographers, Utah-based local Tom Till has the kind of job you can’t help but envy.
It’s his role to venture out into the wilds of America’s Southwest (as well as various countries all over the globe) and capture something beautiful through a lens. And he is very, very good at his job.
As enormous fans of Utah’s stark, desert landscapes, we got in touch with Tom to pick his brain over what makes this photogenic land tick.
You’ve obviously travelled all over the world. Why do you call Utah home?
I actually came to live in Utah after college to explore the thousands of canyons and other amazing landscapes of the area. This comes from an obsession I’ve had with the area since I was a child. I’m based in Moab, Utah with a 3,000 foot cliff in my backyard and a 13,000 foot mountain range out my window. I tend to fall in love with every landscape I visit and shoot, but the Four Corners area is especially spectacular to me. It’s possible we have the world’s best light coupled with the world’s most amazing landscape.
What does Utah offer a photographer that Arizona and Nevada don’t?
I’m very close to Arizona here, so this is like comparing real good apples with other really good apples. It’s all grand, including Nevada.
The Southwest almost feels like a country in itself. What sets it apart from the rest of America?
The American Southwest is a true desert and has the biggest concentration of national parks in America outside maybe Alaska. It’s not just sand, but full of rivers, canyons, mountain ranges and endless places to explore. I can’t forget the mysterious and ancient Native American dwellings and rock art. And the public land outside the parks is also full of wonders. I’ve spent my life hiking, river running, and jeeping here. Another saying we have is: nobody’s seen it all, it’s just too big. It’s different from the rest of America because it rarely rains, there aren’t a lot of trees, and population is sparse.
Where are your favourite spots to shoot in Utah?
Certainly the Utah National Parks are worthy of a lot of your attention, especially the first time you come. We have four distinct seasons, so when you come is also important. My friend, the photographer Laurent Martres, has a wonderful book about photographing Utah landscapes that can help you with some of those logistics.
Any tips for budding nature photographers?
My main tip is to use a tripod. Since we’re usually shooting early and late, and we need small apertures, and perhaps shooting for HDR, a tripod is essential. I see my workshop students who have spent all their money on cameras and lenses, and nothing on their tripod. It should be the other way around.
Everyone who comes to Zion wants to see The Narrows and Angel’s Landing. Are other (more secret) spots you can share?
The Subway is really my favorite place in Zion. It is on a permit basis, so you may have a hard time getting in, but it’s worth it.
When’s the best time of year to travel and shoot in Utah?
From July to October we have the monsoon season with clouds, storms, waterfalls, and fabulous light – it’s really my favorite time of year. Autumn is very lovely too: all the parks have great fall colors with maples, aspens and cottonwoods going off. Winter aperture in the Canyon Country is a time of silence and deep calm. The crowds are mostly gone and storms from the Pacific attack the area. Sometimes in winter you can be the only one out there, and the silence and peace are overwhelming.
You’ve been studying the wilderness for a long time. Have you noticed any changes in Utah the last decade or two?
My town of Moab has changed a great deal. It’s gone from being unknown to a travel hub. Nearby towns like Grand Junction and St. George have swollen exponentially. Politically the American West beyond the coast has always been conservative, but the recent attempts to put public lands in private hands are unprecedented. Those of us who would like to preserve the wilderness character of that land are facing political challenges we have not seen before. Also the area is in the throes of major drought. It’s not as bad as California yet, but who knows what the future will bring.
Sunrise or sunset? Where do you stand?
I really don’t have a preference on sunrise or sunset. The sun position determines that for me at many times. Also in this temperate climate, the sun swings across a wide arc through the seasons, so that becomes as important as the time of day. For example, I just discovered a new scene I have in mind to shoot, but I have to wait until sunrise this fall for the light to be right.
What’s been your best memory of travelling in Utah?
I have many great memories tied to photography. There are times when conditions make it effortless, and I go into a kind of Zen state where hours pass and seem like minutes. I live for those times. Why would I ever want to stop?
For photographers heading to Utah, what sort of gear should they bring?
I shot 4×5 color transparencies for almost 40 years. We scanned some yesterday and they always amaze me at their fidelity and beauty. Now I think a high megapixel 35mm is the best idea. Believe it or not, a fisheye lens comes in handy a lot. I find myself often stuck in a small place trying to shoot some huge scene, and the fisheye also puts a new slant on any scene that’s been shot a lot.
Where’s next for you? Off on another overseas trip?
I will be shooting around the West this summer and go to China in the fall to shoot deserts there. I’ve cut back considerably on my overseas trips, but I hope to return to Australia for trip number 15. At three weeks per trip, I’m close to my goal of living one year of my life in that magnificent country. Somehow, it feels a lot like home.
Like the look of Utah? See the Mighty 5 for yourself on an Intrepid group tour.
Images and content c/o Tom Till. To check out more of Tom’s amazing work, head to tomtillphotography.com