Outrunning Those Just Behind You

An email exchange I had with another workshop instructor dislodged something that I've been meaning to reinforce on the site for awhile. 

Photography is not a static art (or craft or whatever you think it is). As Susan Sontag wrote, to be great as an artist means you have to stand on the shoulders of those that came before you. Many of Ansel Adam's photos these days are what most of us pros would tend to regard as "reference photos." Photos for the file in case we get a stock request for something, but not something that truly shows what we can do, what we saw and felt, what we want to uniquely communicate. 

That's because images get stale over time. One comment I get from site readers from time to time is to show more of my work. Sorry, but no. Here's the rule if you're a pro: if you have unique and interesting work and you can't fully maximize the marketing and sales of it from the very first day you show it publicly, the value you'll obtain from that work will go down every day that passes. I do some day intend to create a few limited sets of prints. Showing that work now would tend to reduce the value of the work in the future (unless of course, I die; for some reason the collectors who pay big bucks love dead artists). 

I'm drifting from my point here, but not far. 

The history of landscape photography is parallel to the discovery of the West. The reason why Yellowstone is a National Park has to do with photographs that were brought back and used in a 19th century form of political lobbying. Literally. Some of the photos (and paintings) that came back from 19th century exploration in the US were considered to be made up, fraudulent. How the heck could the ground spout water hundreds of feet into the air? Someone must have ChemicalShopped them! 

Many of those early shots were simple. Heck, if you've got the first ever photo of a sulfuric hot springs that has run off a hill and frozen in winter, you've got a winner no matter what lens you used, where you stood, how you framed it, and even the exposure can be off some and people will still be stunned by the content.

Point Number One: Find things others haven't seen before.

This, by the way, is the basic National Geographic formula.You’re never going to get a National Geographic assignment unless you can prove you can do this on demand.

Today, finding anything in a US National Park that hasn't been photographed before is nearly impossible, though you might have a real hard time figuring out what stream this is and what park it's in:

UTArchesCapReef 10-2005 2140bythom.jpg

And why is the stream brown? ;~)

How many photos have been taken of Half Dome at this point? At high season in Yosemite you can expect maybe 20,000 cameras wandering around the valley every day. Yes, 20,000 a day. Of course, many of those are cell phones and compacts, so perhaps you believe you can just win the "best Yosemite image of the day" by having better gear. Doubtful. Because of my first point, the odds of you being in the right place at the right time versus one of the other 19,999 are low. Remember, photos tend to be moments in time. Light changes rapidly in Yosemite, so by the time you can get to the phenomena you want to photograph, dozens, maybe hundreds already got the peak moment. 

Point Number Two: Study what others before you have done so that you know when you're just repeating it versus showing something new and unique. 

The real problem, of course, is that the ubiquity of images is making good ones stale faster. Thus, my headline.

Back in the film days, learning how to get good exposure, composition, and focus was difficult. The once-a-month shooter had no real chance, actually. That's because the feedback loop between what you were thinking and doing and setting when you took the shot was so long before you actually saw the result. Grab the camera, stuff some film in it, go out on a trip on Saturday, take some shots, drop the film off on the way to work on Monday, pick it up when you get around to, look at it when you get around to it..uh, what did I do wrong in that shot? It was really tough to teach workshops in the film days, too. Even the best case scenario was that students were seeing the images they took the day after they took them. This doesn't help folk progress fast.

Thus, pros in the film days that were shooting every day had a real advantage. They climbed the learning cliff and were on top shooting away while the amateurs struggled to do more than get usable images. That's one reason why all the automation really struck a cord and sparked film SLR camera sales, actually. Hey, automatic exposure, automatic focus, there are two of the big technique hurdles "fixed." 

With digital, things went into warp speed. I got a lot of satisfaction in the early D1 days where I could teach a student something and we could see it applied—even on the poor LCDs we had back then—immediately. Indeed, it's the basic trial-by-error learning loop. Do something, look at the result, change something, see if the result is better. When you have someone knowledgeable directing that trial and error process, the results get better fast.

Unfortunately, that coupled with the ubiquity of cameras has made for a few million good photographers. Perhaps not great photographers. But certainly good enough that when something interesting happens where the amateur happens to be, they get images that the pros wish were in their files. I can cite case after case of that happening in the last decade, and if those smartphone cameras ever get to a really high level of competence, the floodgates will open even wider. 

That said, the bottom line is still the same: unique vision, unique experiences, and competent technique or better often lead to unique images, and unique images tend to win. Copying something or doing the same thing as every else in the same places just isn’t the answer to being a great photographer. Being a better observer, putting yourself in unique situations or places, trying things that haven’t been tried before, those are things that give you a chance to stand out. At least until everyone else decides what you did was great and starts trying to copy you. 

So where was that photo I showed above shot? In Capitol Reef National Park. The water feature is not a permanent stream; in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if it was a one-time only stream. Basically you’re seeing wild run-off from a short, intense rainstorm. All I can say is that when I showed up to my friends' house in Torrey just outside the park later that day, they were surprised to find a completely brown Thom at their door, covered in mud from head to toe. That’s because I was doing the same thing all that sudden water was doing: meandering through the landscape following natural terrains and trying to find a unique picture to take. The one I show here isn’t it, but there were plenty on hand that day, especially once I decided that laying in the mud was better than standing on it. Good thing I was driving a rental vehicle ;~)

Point Number Three: Teaching photo workshops means you probably won't get unique images.

Back to the conversation that prompted this article. When you have four, six, eight, sixteen, or thirty-two students with you in tow, all with equipment pretty much as good as yours, the chances that you come back with something unique from that trip is very low. Not unless you sneak off from the students to go do some shooting of your own. 

That wasn’t true in the film days. Just technique alone tended to net you the image while all the students attempted but fell short in some way. These days, the abilities of students tends to be high, and it gets higher very fast if you actually spend time teaching them. I’ve seen a few instances over the past decade where a student managed a better shot of something unique happening in front of us than I did. That happens to me in Botswana partly because I take the worst seat/position in the vehicle in terms of flexibility, but it can also just be a matter of a slight difference in when someone fired off their shutter. 

I’m actually proud when that happens, because I don’t teach photo workshops to get great images, I teach them to help others do so. 

Which brings me to my conclusion: my best images tend to be the ones when I’ve been alone, in a place where there aren’t any other photographers, trying things that others might not consider, working hard to find my vision of the place or situation I’m in. When I’m in the backcountry and I see another photographer I might stop by and say hello to be social, but I always immediately move on to find my own great shot and leave them to keep working on theirs.

The corollary is simple: if your tripod is set up next to a dozen other tripods, I’ll bet that you don’t end up with anything unique.  

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