I’ve got a question for you and please feel free to leave your thoughts below. As I was prepping for my “Inside the Composition” course that I just released, I realized this was a great time to write about it. I’d love to see a good conversation on this one.

Are you photo collecting with your photography? Or actually making photos?

I’ve got a topic that’s been swirling around my head for years so buckle up… it’s a good one and could stir up a little controversy with your peers so I encourage you to start a discussion to see how others feel. Have you ever heard the term “Photo Collecting”? I actually haven’t officially heard it before but some other photo educators and I use it when we chat with each other. Essentially photo collecting is kind of like collecting stamps or coins or something similar. You identify an important stamp (let’s say, “The Inverted Jenny” – yes it’s a real stamp) that you’d like in your collection, and you work to get it there. You didn’t create the stamp so it’s not about stamp making – it’s about collecting the ones that you like and feel would be a nice addition to your collection.

Photo Collecting is similar. You identify a photo you’ve seen and then you work to go to that spot and get that photo. It could be one from a national park, or an iconic monument, or even a cityscape. Here are a few examples…

Mesa Arch
Bryce Canyon
Antelope Slot Canyon

These are all photo collecting spots. I saw them and decided I wanted them in my portfolio so I went there and collected the shots. No matter what I did I was going to walk away with a good photo because these locations are proven “great photo” worthy. With Photo Collecting, you’re not necessarily creating something new, you’re simply collecting favorites that have already been photographed before and adding them to your collections of photos. Sure, maybe you put a little “spin” on the photo and try to photograph it different -but for the most part you’re going out and collecting a photo from a location.

Is Photo Collecting Bad?

You may think I’m saying this is a bad thing. But I’m not. I actually think photo collecting is an important part of your photographic journey for a couple of reasons:

1) I think photo collecting helps build confidence. It’s like learning to play an instrument. Anyone who picked up an instrument (that wasn’t forced to) picked it up because they heard a song and said “I want to play like that”. So they learn the song. And in return it builds CONFIDENCE. Learn enough of them and you’ll start to develop your own style as well. That’s a good thing. Going to some iconic places where I couldn’t help but get a great photo was a great confidence boost for me in my early stages of photography.

2) I think photo collecting can add to our experience of a place. When we experience a location through the camera, we experience it differently than just standing there looking at it. We notice so many more nuances and character about a location that way. Both in camera, and on the computer later when we get to experience it all over again (when most others don’t). Like I said, that’s a good thing and I think Photo Collecting has it’s place.

But… You Knew There Was a “But” Coming

But I also think learning to make your own photos has just as important of a place. And I believe that’s where you get to show off your true skill as a photographer and to build the fundamentals that will stick with you so you can make photos that really resonate with people. I believe most of you reading this care A LOT about your craft as a photographer and you want to get better (and yes, most of you reading aren’t pros – you just like photography). There’s a difference in this, than only caring about making pretty photos so that friends and family would hit the LIKE button on social media (not that it’s not fun to have your photos “liked”). Many of you belong to camera clubs right? I’ve been to many camera club meetings over the years and when it comes time to show off photos or print comps, when people see yet another photo of Mesa Arch, or the Antelope Slot Canyons, or Death Valley Sand Dunes, you can almost hear the sighs in the room and one person poking their friend next to them and saying “I’ve been there and have that same photo”. And if you don’t hear people saying it, you know darn well you (or them) are thinking it 😉

I don’t want to sound harsh, but you don’t get any “Street Cred.” in your photo circles for showing off yet another image of Monument Valley while you were standing in the parking lot at the visitors center (though it is very pretty). You know it was well as I do, when someone sees this they’ll unconsciously say “Wow… that’s great… I’ve been there to and I have a similar photo”.

You did indeed put in the work to get there, but everyone knows you put your camera in the same exact place that 10’s of thousands of others did and clicked the same photo. As I said, it’s not a bad thing and when your non-photographer friends see it they probably think you’re amazing. It’s definitely a good confidence boost, and I think that’s important in our growth.

But there’s another aspect to this photography thing and that’s learning to make your own photos. Photos that you found. Photos where you worked the composition and created something new. Photo Collecting doesn’t have much to do with composition – it’s more like paint with numbers right? You already have a preconceived notion of what to include, and not include in the frame, before you even got there because you likely saw a bunch of photos of that same place before the trip.

Here’s what I want for you. I want people to see your photos and think “Where is that?”… “How did they see that”… “I would have just walked right past that photo”. One of my greatest works as an enthusiast photographer was when I went to Norway years ago. I came back with some of my favorite photos of all time, and I didn’t have one photo spot picked out. I just drove. Now, I was driving around in Norway which is kind of like cheating 🙂 but it was still a great ego boost to see my work from that trip knowing that none of those places were the usual hot photo “spots”.

How Do You Get There?

So that’s the magic question right? How do you get to that point where you’re not just collecting photos at the popular photo spots. Well, I think the first step is to not go to the hot photo spots all the time. One of the best tools I’ve ever used is Google Earth. I zoom in to my local area (or an area I’m traveling to) and I just pan around looking for things. I found this spot nearby years ago by doing just that.

St. Petersburg FL

I also go to some popular locations around me, but I try to put a different spin on them. Maybe I include the sun or moon in the shot. Or maybe I get down low and use a shallow (blurry) depth of field. Can I find interesting patterns, shapes, or use the concept of simplicity somewhere? Just something different.

I drove by a big open field the other day with large trees spread out in the distance. It hit me that on a foggy sunrise morning, it could look really cool if I zoomed in on one of them. So now I have another photo to go out and take. You may not succeed in making the most amazing photo ever taken at that spot, but it gets you closer to learning to see on your own. And one of those times you’ll go out and I bet you’ll get something really spectacular because you did what most people aren’t doing. You’re practicing with INTENT, and you’re trying.

Plus, I think it helps keep you interested in your own area. I just think (for the most part) people aren’t able to always travel to these iconic locations all the time (and this is in general, having NOTHING to do with the pandemic). So how do you keep yourself motivated during those times when you’re not traveling to still make some interesting and rewarding photos? By looking for new places or new ways to photograph some of those places.

I’m a member of a Facebook group in the Northeast US. It’s a very lively, engaged and vibrant group and they post photos often. As I watch the photos, most people post the same photos from the same places. But every once in a while, I see a photo of a location (the same location that everyone else posts photos of), but this person took a very different perspective. And you can see it in the comments that everyone else noticed it too.

So that’s my challenge to you this new year. Don’t make it a resolution. Don’t make a big deal out of joining a 365 photo group or anything like that. Just decide that you’re going to try to do something different with the locations that you will be in (whether it’s near home or not). You may fail many times, but you will succeed at some point.

And, if you’re feeling really motivated to try to get your composition skills to the next level, I also hope you’ll check out my “Inside the Composition” course. There’s even a few free lessons to watch on the course page.

Thanks for reading and I hope you have a very Happy New Year! 🙂


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