I’ve always been a follower of Seth Godin and follow his blog just about every day. Yesterday I noticed a short post he wrote called “Of course it’s been done before”. While it didn’t mention photography, it got me thinking about how it related. But specifically for landscape photography. Sure, it could be said for many other areas, but I think it makes the most sense for landscape photos. Here’s a portion of what he wrote:
Just about every successful initiative and project starts from a place of replication. The chances of being fundamentally out of the box over the top OMG original are close to being zero. A better question to ask is, “have you ever done this before?” Or perhaps, “are the people you are seeking to serve going to be bored by this?”
Originality is local. The internet destroys, at some level, the idea of local, so sure, if we look hard enough we’ll find that turn of a phrase or that unique concept or that app, somewhere else.
Speaking to his first question “have you ever done this before?”. I often hear from people who don’t want to go shoot a place that’s been shot before. Or when they see yet another photo of a popular location and comment that anyone can take that photo and it’s been done many times before. For me, I’ve always felt like, sure I know it’s been shot before, but not by me. And it hasn’t been post processed by me, etc…
Going to his second question above, “are the people you are seeking to serve going to be bored by this?”. For me, a great example of this is Multnomah Falls just outside of Portland, OR. Photographers I know in Portland won’t even look when they drive by Multnomah, even though it’s one of the prettiest waterfalls I’ve ever seen. But as a visitor years ago, I’d never seen or heard of it before, so I went and shot it.
That photo hangs on my wall in the living room of my house and it’s BY FAR, the most commented on photo I have hanging. People who visit my home (my audience) love it. They have no idea where it is, and that it’s just off the highway and anyone can photograph it. They have no idea how lucky I got that day, because it was raining pretty bad and there were barely any visitors to clutter the photo like there usually are.
Remember, the definition of photography is:
the art or process of producing images by the action of radiant energy and especially light on a sensitive surface (as film or an optical sensor)
Nowhere in that definition does it say that the photo has to be an absolutely original photo that no one else has taken before. Now, I know some people set out to take original photos of locations people haven’t seen before. And part of me loves to do that too. To bring an unseen place to the forefront and share it with people. That’s totally cool and I’m all for it. And if you’re one of those people (which I kinda am), all I’d say is to consider this post next time you see a photo of frequently photographed spot, and know that for that photographer, the idea of being there and making their own photo of that place is also a huge part of the photo experience.
Have a good one!
I agree with you wholeheartedly and have a couple of thoughts.
Rick Sammon did a photo walk here in Seattle a couple of years ago and wanted to shoot near the Space Needle, our most iconic landmark. I heard the same criticism. (Heck I work 100 yards from it) Rick says that sometimes you need to shoot the postcard shot. How good is it compared to the postcard you are replicating. Plus up in NY where he lives it would be quite a novelty. (Reminded of me of Kelby saying look your subject up on 500PX.
The novelty as it turns out is local as well. I shoot Sr. Pictures in both the Seattle area and in the Tacoma area 30 mins away. My Tacoma Seniors want to go to Seattle and my Seattle Seniors want to go to Tacoma. Both groups thinking that they are getting the most unique locations.
Hmmm… yeah. if I think that it’s already been photographed before, ok, then what was the point of me buying a camera in the first place… right?
aside from the general differences between how two different photographers shoot a particular subject ( as the subject may be the same, but the output is different) I could say that maybe the waterfall has been shot before, but two lovers in the same waterfall may have not been….
essentially, everything most likely has been photographed – give a person a camera, especially a person who has not had one before – they’ll want to take pictures of everything anyway…
the camera is a perfect weapon; with the ability to eradicate any of life’s “taken-for-granted” moments – punctuating those moments with meaning / purpose. as for life’s participant’s, us, the camera just proves we’re here, and in it…
“Something is always in focus…” – anonymous
I took a college photography course back in the 70’s and the instructor stated that the photograph had already been taken. My reply to her was that the shot had never been done until I took it. It is like explaining Ansel Adams shot of the Grand Tetons, it can never be duplicated due to the trees having grown up now covering the lower part of the river. Landscapes are always unique due to the subject matter growing, dying and falling apart.
I really appreciate this, Matt. I live in a place of incredible beauty and multitudes of corresponding iconic photo opportunities (Duluth, MN and the north shore of Lake Superior), all of which have been photographed for decades by thousands of very skilled photographers and millions of tourists. The challenge here is not only to be able to photograph again, with my own particular take on an image, what many others have already done, but often to photograph again what I have already photographed many times myself. Every sunrise visit to the Aerial Lift Bridge and Canal Park is going to be different, as is every visit to Gooseberry Falls, or Lester/Amity, or Enger Park, and I have no duplicate images of any of these places. I wish I could find time to shoot them all more than I do because every experience is unique. Your post encourages me to make even more of an effort to do so. Thanks.
I was up in the gorge at the end of September (my first time) and stopped at Multnomah Falls. Not only did I shoot them, but I’ll shoot them the next time, too. 😎
And I expect that my next set of shots will be better than the first set.
The subject changes with time, my skill changes with time, and my tastes change with time. And that’s without even considering how anyone else’s work and vision differ from mine.
Well, I think that’s an interesting perspective, but nothing new, honestly.
It’s the basis of Impressionism.
Monet, for example, with his work demonstrates very well the prevalence of the subjectivity of the artist.And, with the cathedral of Rouen, for example, that a place is never, never the same, during time, yet.
My 2 cents 🙂
I visited Multnomah (and other falls in the Gorge) when I was in Portland for a conference a few years ago. I did the broad shot like Matt included here, but not nearly as well. Then I took out a long lens, found one of the rocks the water hits on the way down, and did an intimate view. I post-processed it in black & white to emphasize the falling water. It doesn’t say ‘Multnomah” (it could be any waterfall), but it’s now my favorite waterfall image from my portfolio. So, don’t just walk up, take the same shot everyone else does, and put your camera away. Work the location, explore the subject, and have fun!
Matt…Have you ever been through west NC and north GA? There are some crazy gorgeous waterfalls all through there…
I know exactly what you mean. When I saw your image of McWay Falls in Big Sur my mind snapped back to the second I saw that scene for myself. And you mentioned a key thing. Printed and hanging on your wall. How often are you taken back to the moment of exposure? Thanks.
Hey now… I just shot Multnomah Falls two weeks in a row.
LOL! Saw the photos too. Great stuff man! Hope all is well
Absolutely agree. I just visited Multnomah Falls last week and took my shot that will end up on our wall. Not only is it different than yours and others that I see because I shot it, but there were fall colors still present, I approached the shot differently – stitching 2 landscape oriented images together vertically to get the entire falls plus the surrounding fall foliage, and I used my favorite post-processing tools.
All that is to say, every click of the shutter is unique, every vision is personal, every process is different, and the conditions under which we shoot vary. All you have to do is visit the same location once every month for a year and you will know what I’m talking about. And even though there were other photographers standing next to me, their shots will be different. If you take a series of shots of a waterfall, you ever notice the difference in the shape and texture of the water. It changes every moment! Often I pick one shot over another because I find one of these subtle differences more pleasing than the others.
So by all means – shoot it if it pleases you no matter who has placed their tripod legs there before.
Well said David! Would love to see the photo too btw…
Superb thoughts. It’s one of those things that I always have a problem with. It’s so easy to head off somewhere that’s been shot a thousands times before, seems almost lazy to not make an effort and I’ve always done my best to avoid places that have been done to death as I don’t want to be seen as following in the foot steps of others. When I have been to popular places I’ve always tried to look for a slightly different viewpoint, most often as the popular viewpoint already has someone standing there when I get there! Ha ha! However I do like the reassurance that as you say, “not shot by me, not processed by me”. Also as you point out with your great example of the print, we may have seen a site a thousand times on websites but our friends and family may very well not. Consider your audience how they may react! Love it, thanks a lot!
I totally agree George. And I always do look for a “different” shot than the usual. That said, I also try not to look for something different, just to be different. Sometimes there’s a reason you see the same composition (or similar) over and over – and that’s because it’s the most pleasing. I’ve seen too many people at Delicate Arch in Moab at sunrise, shooting something too different. The reason you get up early and go there is to see the gorgeous light on a great looking arch – and I’ve seen photos that barely even include the arch and miss the spectacular show that mother nature is putting on. Anyway, great thoughts!
Hey Matt, thanks for this post! This is very timely for me, as I have been wrestling with this very subject in my own mind. To get better at photography it takes hours of practice and shooting, but I often will tell myself, why bother shooting a beautiful location when it has been shot 1000’s of times. But you are right and I needed a reminder that “I” have never shot the location in question. So now I am going to take your advice, pick up my camera and get shooting! keep the gems coming and good luck with your new job 🙂
Awesome Robert! Get out there and shoot!
Agree wholeheartedly, Matt! I use the “Is this new to me?” question very often when shooting landscapes. And as other folks have commented, outdoor conditions are always slightly different and each photographer brings their own unique view and style to the scene.
Thank you for sharing this post. The photo is really stunning and like with most of these iconic places: there’s a good reason they are iconic. Of course it’s nice to also shoot the less known locations, but there’s no way around iconic places. 🙂
“The idea of being there and making their own photo of that place is also a huge part of the photo experience.” I wholeheartedly agree and thank you for this post.
I’m one of those Portland photographers who skips Multnomah Falls most times I am in the Gorge. I learned a good lesson this past spring when I went up to Mt. Hood to photograph a stream I had previously shot in the ’80s. The stream banks had been taken over by cabins, and they were not new. Things change, including waterfalls. The lichens, mosses and other foliage around the waterfalls change over the years leading to different images. Some of the photographs of the Gorge waterfalls from the 1800’s and early 1900’s can never be replicated. Shoot what you want, process to the best of your ability, and hang it on the wall and enjoy what you have produced.
It’s supposed to be fun. I live on a lake. I’ve shot on the lake almost daily. Sitting on my camp stool one day, a neighbor stop to say, “What are you shooting?” I said, “The light.” It was fun then. It’s fun now with a ton of new snow. I’d quit if it isn’t fun anymore.
I have this same photo hanging In my house, except mine was taken by me. I have others of Death Valley, Mesa Arch, Oxbow Bend, etc. that though iconic and shot many times before are unique because I was there when they were taken, by me.
Thanks for a great post.
Matt, great post. I find this to be so true! Also, I think it would be cool to see what photographers you follow, I’m always looking for new inspiration!
Thanks Jason! I actually have a post of my top 5 photographers on 500px.com. I’ll post it soon.
Hey Matt, nice article and I really enjoy reading your blog! It’s nice that you touch on relative subjects without being artsy and pretentious.. That seems far too common in the photography world these days! I live in Banff, so deal with this very issue of photographing what has already been done. I’m with you in that the landscape is ever changing with conditions and that with every photography there is always subtle differences. Keep it up!
Thanks Jamie – yeah, artsy is not me. Heck, I’ll even argue with some one that photography isn’t art. But more because it’s fun to see their face turn red at the thought 😉 But yeah, I’m not the real touchy feely type when it comes to this stuff 🙂
Hey Matt! 100% agree. In fact I’ll add that I have tried to replicate a shot I had taken in the past with newer or better equipment and have never gotten the same shot. Sometimes better, sometimes not. Once I got a shot of 30 or so ducklings huddling up close to a mother goose early in the AM and have tried each spring since and never had that same opportunity again.
I have even participated in some workshops where we are all standing together taking the same shot… but they are all different in the end.
I’m all for shooting whatever thrills me… doesn’t matter if I wasn’t first or even if it wasn’t my first time. I figure I am always improving and nothing wrong with trying again to make a better shot. Besides, when it is hanging on your wall at home (or somewhere else) it’s your shot, not someone else.
Great article, Matt! The exact words I said when I went to shoot the most photographed iconic structure the Flatiron in New York City. I was standing amongst the many tourist holding all sorts of cameras from smartphones to high-end DSLRs. Then it occurred to me and I said to myself, that it doesn’t matter if everybody has the same shots but this will be my shot, taken by me, with my own camera. It makes me prouder thinking that I went there, saw it, and captured it.
Well said, Matt. There are very few places in the world that haven’t been photographed yet. And each of us have our favorite places that we would go back to and photograph over and over.
Great post, I agree with your thoughts on this. I always feel that, especially for landscape photos, it’s never ever really the same. You can never replicate the time of day, weather conditions, light, shadow and other elements in the same exact mix ever again at any location. Between that fact and processing, there are many. many ways to “see” a scene and make it your own.
Thanks Glenn – I’m with ya! (obviously, I wrote the post right?) 😉
But you’re right, you can never replicate the same conditions. Something is always a little different and that’s what makes your photo of the same location, different than mine. I think it’s tough for non-landscape photographers to get, but those of us that love to shoot outdoors can see it in a heartbeat. Thx!