Don't Follow the Herd: Should Landscape Photographers Explore?

It is an often debated topic these days in landscape photography. Should you shoot the same locations that everyone sees ad nauseam on social media? Watch this video to see one photographer's take on the subject.

When preparing to be one of the leaders of a recent landscape photography conference in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Thomas Heaton realized that one of the working sessions he was scheduled to lead was at the world-famous Mesa Arch. You've probably seen several hundred pictures of Mesa Arch at sunrise on Instagram; it's world-famous for a reason. However, as with most iconic locations, this fame comes at a cost, namely that there are always photographers galore all crammed together to shoot the same shot. 

Heaton isn't suggesting not to pursue iconic shots. What he is suggesting is that landscape photographers spend more time studying and understand lighting conditions and exploring their surroundings instead of following the crowds and setting up for the same composition that they've seen in countless photographs. Case in point - the morning his group was at Mesa Arch, the weather conditions weren't conducive to capturing the classic shot of the first rays of light hitting the rocks and producing a beautiful glow. With poor lighting and a large number of photographers concentrated at the arch, Heaton focused his group on adapting to the weather and trying instead to uncover new possibilities. 

What are your thoughts on shooting iconic locations?

Aneesh Kothari's picture

Aneesh Kothari is a Houston-based travel, landscape, and cityscape photographer. He enjoys reading, traveling with his family, and making lists of things he enjoys. He yearns to be a Civil War buff but has yet to finish the Ken Burns series.

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Love the article. I suck at landscapes, but I do them all the time. I don't do it for others to view, but its my little escape for me. If I go to a "popular" location I spend my time trying to find a way to photograph it uniquely. When I travel, I try to seek out places that would be overlooked by most. So many amazing landscape photographers out there, just do what you love, what you want to do, what you feel at that moment.

"everyone sees ad nauseam on social media"

We are still not groomed mentally to see everyone photos. This is still very new. So go out and take your photo. You are there to see it and to not photograph it because you know other people have. You're do yourself a disservice of memory. Just remember there are people at the same spot using their cellphones because they are simply there. Who don't give two shits about social media. Who are happy. Why are you so negative/triggered?

This is a mentality that stretches well beyond photography. Remove the cameras from the equation and think about it in terms of just a person. How many see the high country in Yosemite vs just the tunnel view of Half Dome? And of those that see anything more of Yosemite than the main valley, how many actually go into the backcountry? And of those that walk into the backcountry, how many actually venture off trail?

Yosemite sees something like 4 million visitors a year, the majority of them in the summer months. Yet I can still go there in August and not see a single person for a week if I want to. Granted, it takes a lot of planning and work, but so do most things that are rewarding. Most people don't want to work that hard. This is no different.

For many, going to a famous spot may be their one and only visit. If you don't get the shot then, there is little or no chance to ever get it. Doesn't matter if it's been shot a posted a bazillion times. I have yet to visit any of the parks, so if I ever do, you can bet that I'll be at those spots to get my version of the scenes. Then, if time permits, I'll wander looking for less photographed areas or look at alternatives.

When people ask "is instagram ruining photography?" this is what they are talking about. There are so many awesome spots to explore in Canyonlands its simply amazing. Most of these people will come here get this one shot and leave. It just amazes me. On the bright side, the other million acres of the park are open for me and my fellow exploratory shooters to enjoy!

I think it has less to do with Instagram and more to do with the fact that there are more photographers than ever and most photographers have very little creativity and are risk minimizers rather than risk takers.

I'm sure the exact same thing was happening when photos were featured in magazines like Popular Photography and National Geographic. The difference back then was that very few of the population were photographers, less people were traveling, and there were very few platforms to share your work. Now everyone is a photographer, everyone has a social media platform to share their photos, and world wide travel has never been easier or cheaper than today.

I talk a lot about this with Mike Kelley and we both have a similar mentality of "if everyone has photographed it already, I def don't want to photograph it." That doesn't mean we won't photograph New York City or Patagonia but if we see a group of photographers standing in one area, we will probably avoid that shooting location and try to find something unique. Maybe that's why we both enjoy drone and helicopter photography because it's very hard to get the exact same photo from the air (although I'm sure geo tagging locations with drones will soon be a thing).

Yeah I hear you. I still shoot the icons once in a while too, but I am also out searching for interesting light, unique compositions etc. And my day starts before sunrise and ends after sunset. I was shooting the Barns in Grand Teton NP a while ago and when the sunrise was not a perfect 10 a group of photos form Georgia all left in a tizzy to go to town and get coffee. WTF. I shot all day and had a blast. Photogs are getting lazy.

ON another note. I thought you guys were gonna come ski Colorado backcountry with me and shoot a video? Lets go for it this year...its already snowing here.

just because a site is commonly shot doesn't mean it's been shot by ME, with My perspective in My unique look during the time of day, season or weather conditions that ME shot it in... wait, uh...

but i hope you get my point. i'll shoot a commonly shot spot because i don't care to hang someone's else's printed instagram or facebook photo on my wall.

besides, with some locations, i'll constantly return in hopes i can catch a unique weather phenomenon or a specific light, etc. but that doesn't mean i'll go visit midday when it's crowded, or that i'm somehow obligated to share my results on instagram.

it also doesn't mean that all i do is shoot retreads. one person can do both. and in the end, i'm not shooting for "you," i'm shooting for me.

To me this is just another version of paparazzi shooting and I avoid it at all costs. Sometimes shots from an iconic spot are nice to get, but the odds of it ever standing out is very slim. Same quality shot from a fresh (quality) angle and now you have something.

"but the odds of it ever standing out is very slim"

That's your problem!

Not in the slightest. Show me any shot from a popular place, and I'll find a better one online that was already done. My photography desires are a little less common.

Now, I'm not saying I'm good or successful, but it is what brings me joy, and that is why I shoot. If you're not doing something different, you're doing the same old thing. Which might be fine for you, but not for me.

You're to fixated on "trying to stand out" rather than actually photographing. Which holds everyone back. Elia Locardi photographs the most iconic locations around the world. Yet he stands out. Hmm I wonder why.... (pss post-processing and marketing). The rest takes care of its self, so just shot.

Good for him. I shoot for fun and I'm not sure you know, what, how or WHY I want to shoot something. But thanks for thinking you know how I should do it. After all, it's about competing, not enjoying my hobby. Trust me, I have taken, marketed and sold many thousands of "standard" shots. I know to do it, if I want to. I know how to stand in line at Disneyland as well, but don't plan on doing it any time soon.

It's OK to let me have my own opinion. At least where I live it is.

I’ve been exploring upper Teasdale the last couple of months, the compositions are tough but there isn’t another soul around so the rewards of original photos are massive, just need to brush up on my skills now

Agree with you 💯..

I see a crowd, I leave. I don't want the same shot everyone else is getting.

What is the point in taking a photograph that has been taken thousands of times before by thousands of other photographers?