Should You Avoid Taking the Iconic Shots?

Should you avoid shooting popular photography locations? One landscape photographer tries to answer that question while searching for a unique composition at a classic photo spot.

We live in a photo-saturated age. I'm familiar with countless locations around the world that I've never physically laid eyes on due to the democratization of camera technology and the proliferation of social media. From the images I routinely see on my Instagram feed, I feel like I know the Faroe Islands like the back of my hand, and yet I don't think I could pinpoint them on a map. 

An age-old question among landscape photographers is whether one should avoid the cliché locations that have been photographed by multitudes before. Landscape photographer Thomas Heaton faces this quandary on his recent trip to Patagonia, Argentina. He arrives at Los Glaciares National Park and, instead of spending his time photographing the iconic spots such as Perito Moreno Glacier, he searches for alternate compositions in an effort to capture natural beauty that can't easily be identified with a specific location. 

While there is always a sense of pride in finding and capturing hidden gems off the beaten path or going to the same place as many others and coming away with unique images, I am firmly of the mindset that there's nothing wrong with seeking out the classic locations and finding a way to bring out your unique artistic vision to life. Every photographer sees a scene differently according to his or her experiences, aesthetics, and sensibilities. I love the feeling of being somewhere I've seen a thousand times in pictures online. It has the sense of familiarity and the exhilaration of newness at the same time. There are always ways to make the postcard shot your own. Some examples of this include experimenting with varying angles or frames, trying your hand at long-exposure work, and capturing the same frame at varying intervals to blend together into a composite in post. 

What are your thoughts on taking or avoiding the iconic shot?

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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As a budding hobbyist, I would say it would be worth while. Then you would have so many other examples to compare to, you can see what you wanted to do, what you didn't like about others, and also have people more easily critique your own photograph of the same subject. I was recently on a trip and I took the shots just because, but now when I look at them and remember how others took it, I'm thinking why didn't I do it more like this, or "wow didn't think it would look this good the way I took it," etc. It's a learning experience I think. Shows in your own personal albums/photobooks you were there and you took it as well, so there's that sense of pride that you mentioned as well.

Yes and No. On one hand, getting an iconic shot is really fun and in some cases, they're once in a lifetime trips. You won't get another chance, so you might as well take the shot.

On the other hand, you grow much more as an artist if you experiment. It can also help you to see something from a new and unique perspective. This is especially important if you want your work to stick out. If you shoot what 90% of photographers shoot, you'll blend in with 90% of photographers.

I agree with you. Take those photos and then find others too. The fact is, who cares if someone else shot it. For the vast majority of photographers, your audience won't care so either do it or not, as pleases you.

We actually just ran into Thomas in Patagonia a few days ago, and I really appreciate this approach. There are so many iconic locations that you just have to photograph at some point but there are so many amazing landscape compositions that probably have never been photographed (or at least photographed well). I find some of the most rewarding photographs to be those off the beaten path.

Patrick - I completely agree with you. I was thinking of you guys when I saw Thomas' video and wrote this post. The tutorials you make with Elia are inspirational to many (including myself) but tend to focus on the so-called "iconic shots." The main way Elia's work stands out from so many others who shoot the same locations is with his time-blending approach and with the fact that he will go back to the same location over and over again (sometimes over the course of years) until he gets the perfect moment he's after. Are you guys looking at more off the beaten path shots on this trip?

To answer the question "Should You Avoid Taking the Iconic Shots?" Absolutely no! So what if it's been done before?
I had just one 30 year old bucket list item that I finally checked off on July 8, 2011: watch a Space Shuttle launch in person. Since this was my first and only opportunity to see a launch, should I leave it to others to photograph? Atlantis was the star of the show.
After that, I needed to add more bucket list items. One of those is photographing the Aurora; sure that's been done many times. Just because it's been done doesn't mean that you don't have to.
Heaton does make a point that if you're in a location where there are other photographic opportunities, go for it.
But I say "go ahead and take the photo".

Most of the time, the iconic shot is in some easily-accessible, tourist-friendly area. It doesn't take much effort to get there, and exposures are practically free (large-format shooters, please ignore this statement), so why not take a snap of it in addition to your own experimentation?

Shoot both the iconic shots and the more creative shots. It does not have to be either/or.

That's my thinking as well

If there is an obvious (or iconic) shot, take that shot so that you at least have it in the bag. Then see if you can find a different take on it.

Great advice - following the light no matter where it takes you can certainly lead to great results.

"It's truly surprising to me that we freely choose to trophy-hunt like this. And I can understand the appeal of the pursuit of such shots in landscape photography. Just pick one of the tried and tested locations and wait for the light to happen, right?"
- Some more thoughts on iconic images in this essay:

Wonderful article and images, Daniel!