Are You a Collector or a Photographer?

Some amateurs don't realize what they're really doing

Elsewhere I wrote about having photographic goals. Thing is, a lot of photographers have goals they aren't aware of. 

A long time ago I noticed something interesting about my workshops: students took better pictures in Capitol Reef National Park and Escalante-Grand Staircase than they did in Arches National Park and Bryce National Park. I don't mean technically better; I mean aesthetically and personally better, and unique. The pictures I see at the workshop wrap-ups at Capitol Reef and Escalante-Grand Staircase are simply more evocative, have more individual feel, and are more interesting then the ones I see taken at workshops at the name parks. And this has been consistent for a decade's worth of teaching.

It took me a couple of years to figure out why that was, but it turns out to be one of those hidden dangers of photography (and art in general, actually): unintentional copycatism.

First, there's the problem of attraction. You go to Yellowstone National Park because of Old Faithful, other thermal features, and the wildlife. You know they're there because you've seen pictures of them. You go to Bryce National Park for the Hoodoos, and you even time your visit so that there's a possibility of first snow. Why? Because you've seen those pictures. Tetons? Think Schwabacher Landing and the old farmhouse, not to mention the Snake River Overlook Ansel Adams made so famous or the view of Mt. Moran at Oxbow Crossing. You go to Yosemite (Valley) because you've seen great pictures of Half Dome, Bridalviel Falls, Yosemite Falls, El Capitan, and a host of other features. I could go on, but I think you get my point: you're there for the "biggies." Indeed, in Africa we even speak of the Big Three (Elephants, Cats, and Rhinos). The unstated (and sometimes unrecognized) goal of many photographers is to "get the Biggies." (By contrast, the first time I went to Southern Africa I came back with dozens of reptile photos I love and almost none of the Big Three that I like.)

So my question for all of you headed off to all those well-known nature photography locales is this: are you going there to collect the photo you've seen someone else do, because you just want to see the place where the photo was taken, to attempt to out-shoot Art Wolfe or Jack Dykinga or George Lepp, or do you go for some other reason? 

I hope it's the last of those, and I hope the answer is "because I know there are other photos there that no one else has seen or captured." Because the alternatives aren't so great, are they? To wit:

  • Collect the photo. You've seen Pro X's shot, so you want to put your tripod legs in the same spot and collect the same shot. Really? Why not save some money (travel ain't cheap) and just purchase a print from the person who made the famous shot in the first place? Even at a US$1000 per print it takes a lot of prints to make an income off photography. Not many folk are managing to do that, so why not help them instead of try (and maybe fail) to copy them?
  • See if you're up to the challenge. Well, one answer to that last question is this: "If I can take a shot as good as Pro X got at that place then I must have mastered photography." Really? Exposure and the technical side are the easy parts of photography (the craft), and by copying a known shot in a known locale, you're essentially cheating at the composition part (the art), which is the difficult part! I suppose some might say that it's a bit like painting a copy of the Mona Lisa: by doing so you learn the strokes and color choices and other craft decisions that went into making the original. But I'm not sure you are, actually, as you won't be bringing that view camera that Ansel Adams used nor are you likely to be spot metering, writing down the Zones, and then developing and printing your material exactly the same, either. Unless you're doing exactly what the original artist did, you're not really examining and mastering the same decisions he or she originally made.
  • Just see the place. Well, that's okay, but this is a photography site and you did bring your camera with you to that place, didn't you? And when you get to the Snake River Overlook you're going to look through the viewfinder thinking that you'll see what Ansel Adams saw, right? My feeling is that if you're going because of the place, you should just enjoy the place and not ruin your trip by trying to take a great photograph ;~). It may surprise you to know that sometimes I just enjoy being in the place and don't bother taking pictures, even though I know they're all around me. Part of eventually being able to make a picture that evokes the feel of a place is to have actually felt it in the first place. (By the way, you can't get the shot Ansel got at Snake River Overlook. Why? Because the trees have grown over and changed.)
  • Outshoot the pros. Perhaps if Old Faithful suddenly rises to twice its normal height, the elk climbs on top of the arch, or you get the Perfect Storm over Half Dome then you've got a chance at getting something unique. It's still going to be difficult to top what's come before you, at least at the types of places we're talking about. That's because there's been hundreds of photographers a day at those places since they were revealed (sometimes hundreds an hour). Heck, there are books that have sold in the tens of thousands of copies telling you how to get to the exact spot where magic can be made! The odds that you'll be the one to outdo the most memorable pro shot made there are low. Even lower when you realize that the pro in question likely came back to that spot many, many times trying to find the right moment as well as place.

The last time I took a workshop into Yosemite Valley I actually did what the students thought at the time was a mean thing: I didn't let them shoot the classics. Instead, we spent most of our day heads down under the forest canopy and around small water features, most of which don't have names. And you know what? When all was said and done, the pictures the students managed there were all far better than any they could have captured that day at the big rocks or waterfalls (the skies weren't cooperating for the big scenics, for one thing). Indeed, several were professional quality and publishable as is. But at the start of the drive into the valley we had a fight over not going to Half Dome or any of the other classic spots. Not after they took their pictures, though. To a student, they were glad I forced them to look elsewhere. And they have Yosemite shots you don't have. Try to collect those!

Which brings me back to the Utah parks. Bryce, Zion, Arches, and Canyonlands have classic published images of most of their key features. I don't even have to show you the images as you can cite them off the top of your head (in order: snow on hoodoos from Sunrise Point, the Narrows in fall, Delicate Arch at sunset with snow on the Lasals behind them, and the golden light underneath Mesa Arch at dawn). Okay, now name the classic shots taken at Capitol Reef, or Escalante-Grand Staircase. Can't do it, can you? So how would you know where to go? 

Well, that's my point. Go explore and find something that speaks to you, not to the millions of people that have already seen it. Get off the path that everyone takes because it's listed in Laurent's books, the Photograph America newsletter, or the latest issue of Outdoor Photography.

For example, in Capitol Reef I've found a small, isolated place where almost no one ever goes. That's perfect for a small workshop like the ones I teach. By small place, I mean the area in which we shoot is no bigger than a normal garage (though taller). I've now taken five groups of students into that little dead-end pocket, and you know what? I'm constantly blown away by the variety of publishable pictures that come out of that one little spot. Yes, I did my scouting well; while small, there is an enormous inventory of interesting things in that small space, and I realized that the moment I saw it the first time. Yet last time I went my four students managed to find several things I hadn't seen there before. None of my students have any preconceived notion when I push them past the entrance to this place. They've never seen any published shots from there (or just about anywhere else in the park), and their minds are open and devouring everything they see. Patterns emerge. Relationships emerge. Striking features get found. And great shots get made.

So I reiterate: what's your photographic goal? I think it should include the aspiration to something more than copying others (intentionally or unintentionally). If all you take is a photograph that is "just like" something I've seen before, all I know is that you've been there. Sending me a post card would be more effective, actually. But if you take a photograph that is clearly yours and uniquely captures what you felt while visiting that special place, then you've achieved an important milestone and goal.

Funny thing is, when you look for that, you find it. Recently at Arches I think I figured out a way to photograph Delicate Arch in a way that evokes my experience and as far as I can tell, hasn't been done before. I've got to go back to do the photograph, though, as the right other things weren't happening that are needed in the shot. Moreover, I have to do it at a time when the place isn't packed with photographers, otherwise I'm likely to see copies of what I do before I even have a chance to get home and process it. So I have a one-shot goal. It might take me a few years to capture it, but the goal is set. Now I only need to reach it. 

Here's something to ask yourself if you've been to any of the classic American parks (or International spots, for that matter): do you have a picture from there that excels yet doesn't mimic something someone else already shot? If not, you're likely unintentionally copying others rather than taking your shots. So here's a goal for you: do like I do when you're in those places and look for the shots that are yours. They are there. I know they are. I spend much of my year teaching others how to find them, and they usually do. But you have to look for them.

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