To Be

High alpine valley

No, I’m not addressing the existential “or not to be” question. I was triggered by reading questions from photographers about planning photo trips. There were lots of concerns about locations and what lenses to take and time of day or even time of year, but it seems to me they are missing a fundamental point. You are an artist. You are going out to be, to create, to be inspired. Collecting a stack of the same standard pictures everyone else takes is not the goal.

Being the same

I have written on this before. I hope you believe your task as an artist is to create new work, your own work, not imitate what has already been done. Yes, Yosemite is full of iconic locations. If I was there I’m sure I would shoot at some of them. The difference is these shots would be just for me, to remember being there. I would not be shooting for my portfolio unless I encountered exceptional and unique circumstances at one of these overshot scenes.

I see a lot of photographers actively planning trips to these locations to intentionally try to duplicate these iconic shots. It makes no sense to me. If that is what you like, have fun. Each of us is motivated by different things. But if you were starting out as a writer would you write a knock-off of Moby Dick just so you could have a copy of it you could say you made? I hope not. Write your own book.

Maybe you don’t really know who you are as an artist yet. I understand. I’m still trying to figure it out for myself. I decided long ago, though, that imitating other people will not help me create my own work.

Letting go

If you are not going to imitate other work then you are put in a potentially scary place: you have to create on your own. But what if I can’t? What if I’m not really creative? Maybe I don’t have anything to say? These are all normal and valid concerns.

You will never know until you try. And guess what, when you try you will probably fail. How’s that for encouragement?

I want it to be encouraging, though. When you start doing anything new you are not good at it at first until you try and fail and practice – a lot. As a matter of fact, if it is too easy you are either not challenging yourself enough or you have picked something that will not keep your interest for long. If it is too easy it becomes boring.

Let go and start doing your own art. Follow your own vision, not someone else’s. Don’t visit all the iconic locations to recreate someone else’s art. Focus on your own ideas.

Sometimes you will be left high and dry creatively. That’s OK and normal. Push on. Don’t fear that. Use that time to start understanding what interests you. Believe that you have a creative voice. Keep digging and you will find it.

Put yourself in a different place

One strategy I like to use is to intentionally ignore the popular, iconic locations. I like to seek out little known things that most people have never seen. I love the challenge of finding something in nothing.

I’m lucky in that from my house I can be in the Colorado mountains in 30 minutes or far out on the eastern plains in less than an hour. I go to these places a lot and enjoy them immensely.

But I also wrote recently about driving through the heartland and finding interesting things to photograph. That takes a special discipline and mindset. It is fun for me after long practice. I have come to firmly believe there are interesting scenes almost anywhere.

This brings up a special point. There are interesting scenes all around. You don’t have to go to mountains or national parks or famous locations to do your art. You don’t have to take off for 2 weeks to travel to exotic locations. Beauty and interest is everywhere. Most of it is ignored by everyone around you. Learning to see what is there is a skill that can be learned.

React, create

Learn to be open to what is there around you. Accept it and embrace it as creative possibility. What can you do with it? Just “be”.

You have seen people who thinks selfies or family shots mean lining everyone up in front of a location and giving big fake smiles for the camera. I’m not criticizing them because that makes them happy. I want to encourage you not to try to manage your shots like that. Accept what is there and work with it. Use your creativity to isolate it, to make it interesting for other people, to point out this interesting thing they probably didn’t see.

A photographer friend wrote this in a private newsletter:

“To just be. That is what it is all about. When I find a high place with views all around, every sense just soaks it up into my pores. It is subtle; the opposite of the raucous and titillating world in which we normally live. … These sounds mean vast open spaces and pure freedom. I can peer into this space, keeping my gaze wide. At first I see the far-off trees and rocks and snowfields. Each thing has meaning. …

But after a while my gaze becomes soft, and I focus on the air between myself and the distant ridges. Everything becomes a soft palette of shape and color, devoid of meaning or expectation. The world just is. My experience of sound, sight, and senses just are. If I look for myself I fail. I literally can’t see “me” without a mirror – not my face or head, the features we most often associate with identity. It’s times like these that I can look for myself and just see the beautiful world. It is in this place where I can be exactly what I was designed to be. Just me. And for a brief moment, I am a bird sweeping into the storm.”

When we can learn to experience places or events in this manner we can just be and flow with them and into them. Even if it happened on a walk in our neighborhood. The experience becomes part of us and we reflect it back out in our work. What we produce is something from deep within. It is honest. It may even surprise us.

Chasing Trophies

Stay on track

I’ve come to wonder about people whose goal is to win prizes or duplicate famous shots. What is their reason for shooting? Is there a joy in recreating a shot someone already did? What motivates you? Are you satisfying your personal vision or chasing a trophy in a competition?

Prizes, rewards

I have to admit I used to chase prizes. Back when I was involved in my local camera club we had monthly competitions. Usually with a defined subject. I would spend hours thinking about the target subject, planning shots, and executing them. I must say that I got good at winning blue ribbons (I have a stack of them in my basement).

There was a discipline to this that was good training. Those days were not wasted. For anyone wanting to be a commercial or portrait photographer this is good exercise. I believe we had an exceptional camera club that generally did a lot of good.

But I got to a point where my vision went a different direction. One problem with our club or any organization that is “judging” art is that it has a culture and value system that narrowly filters out work that does not conform to their norm. Whether this is a local club or an international competition it looks to me like this is true.

So in our local club, I quickly learned what would place well and taught myself how to win. I am ashamed to admit that I helped perpetuate the culture by spending years as a judge critiquing other entrants and helping inculcate them. The day I was the first to win a blue ribbon with a heavily Photoshopped image was a time of soul searching for them and me. I decided I was going my own way and following my vision regardless of their likes and dislikes.

Recreate great images

Many people seem to see popular or well known images as a pattern or template they feel they should use. I have seen people researching where and when certain images were made. They want to know what equipment the artist used and how they processed the image. All with the goal, seemingly, of going out and shooting the same image.


That image has already been done. You may, at a chance, do it better, but it is still a copy. It is another artist’s work that you imitated.

Maybe imitation is the most sincere type of flattery, but it does not help the imitator. You are not using your creativity to make wonderful new works. You are not showing the world what you see. I suspect that people doing this feel that they do not have sufficient creativity or vision to come up with their own unique work, so they copy other artists.

An exception

Every rule has at least one exception. That is a good reason to avoid rules.

In 1998 Colorado photographer John Fielder began a major project to recreate many of the famous Colorado images of William Henry Jackson from the 19th century. He drove 25,000 miles and hiked 500 miles to locate each Jackson image – 156 in Vol 1 – and stand in exactly the same spot as Jackson to create a parallel image of what the scene looks like now.

In this case, Fielder was a well established photographer with his own vision and a huge, respected body of work. This project was creative and historical, documenting the changes that had taken place in a little over 100 years. Fielder could not be accused of being imitative. It has become the most popular Colorado regional book of all time.

Few of us are is the same position. If you are working on a project of this significance, good for you and best of luck. I would never imply that it is being an imitator.

Guided tours

I have heard photographers bragging that they offer guided tours to take clients to famous spots to recreate well known images. Really?

I can’t fault them for trying to make a buck if clients will pay for it. It is plenty hard to support yourself as a landscape or fine art photographer and any sources of income are welcome.

What I can’t believe is that customers will pay to be guided to these locations and told how to recreate these scenes. At the end, maybe they had a fun outing, but they have a bunch of imitation shots. These are somebody else’s work. The person who took the tour is kind of a passive tool, basically like a camera that somebody else is manipulating.

Wouldn’t it be better to be inspired by these great pictures and use that as motivation to go create your own unique work? Be yourself. Express your own vision.

Workshops can be a great experience. The right instructor can do wonders to educate and motivate you. I would stay away from template formats, where the instructor is trying to mold you to take exactly the images they take.

What is your reward?

Is the reward a prize? Is it a copy of a famous scene on your wall?

I guess I am not sufficiently competitive. I don’t see the “game” as a contest where there is 1 winner and everybody else loses.

The reward that matters to me is how I feel about my work. If it won prizes or was copied by other people I guess that would be satisfying. But that satisfaction would quickly fade. What remains is my work and the joy I feel in it.

In my long life I have discovered repeatedly that I get much better long term satisfaction from things I really earn and from the works of my own creation.

So enter contests if that motivates you. Get a guide to help you create your images if that helps you. But make sure you are making your images. Make them because it is your vision, not to please or imitate someone else.

Are you being your own person in your work? Let me know how it is going.