Are You Guilty of Formulaic Photography?

Are You Guilty of Formulaic Photography?

My landscape photography relies on a formula. As a photographer attempting to create images with artistic vision, this realization frightens me. This article explores six steps for breaking out of formulaic photography.

What sparked the realization was this video by Lee Morris and Patrick Hall. The video is a photography challenge of who could create the best landscape image of a waterfall in Puerto Rico. As neither Morris or Hall are dedicated landscape photographers, and also because it is Morris and Hall, the video is highly entertaining. I found it profoundly thought provoking too.

I wondered how I would approach shooting the challenge and I realized my approach would look similar to Hall's; a wide viewpoint, use of foreground to lead to the subject, and a slow shutter speed. This approach is how I would start most landscape-based shoots. It is basically a formula and therein lies the problem.

The formula looks like this:

  • Travel to a dramatic vista, preferably one with jagged mountain ranges.
  • Pick a time when the light is best; usually 30 minutes before sunrise to include atmosphere.
  • Choose a primary subject to use as background and then find a secondary subject for the foreground.
  • Use filters or multiple exposures to balance the exposure between foreground and background.
  • Return at sunset and repeat.
  • Return in the dark of night and repeat for astrophotography.

This formula is not easy to pull off as it requires major effort in early starts and can also be expensive, but following this formula is almost guaranteed to lead to beautiful landscape imagery. Because photographers don’t mind a bit of hard work and because they’re dedicated to their craft, we are flooded with highly competent landscape images. Due to the amount of these images, the look has become boring.

Landscape formula - Seascape

A typical formulaic landscape image of mine. Sunrise, foreground interest, long exposure, and a wide view.

In the video, Morris accurately predicts what Hall will be going for and he makes the comment that it is cliche, that he has seen thousands of waterfall pictures just like it. Morris then attempts to create something different, fails in his attempt, and loses the challenge with 70 percent of people voting for Hall's “safe” image.

This highlights a second reason why so many of us follow a formulaic approach to photography. When we color outside of those lines, it is easy to fail. In fact, failure is almost a guarantee. We don’t want to spend time and money only to fail in our attempts to make great imagery.

It bothered me to realize that my landscape photography can be formulaic. To be completely honest, I’m quite sure someone clever could design a robot with a bit of AI to successfully replicate most of my landscape images. I like to think of myself as somewhat of an artist with a unique vision, not as a sophisticated photocopy machine. Going forward, I’m going to take the following steps to include some original vision in my photography.

  1. Get the expected shot out of the way ASAP and then use the remaining time to explore alternatives. This is similar to how I approach a photography brief for my clients. Get the shots on the list and then use the remaining time to be creative.
  2. Leading off step 1, I’m going to give myself permission to fail. I don’t need to create something worth showing from every trip I go on. I’ll use different approaches and if they result in mediocre images, I won’t share them.
  3. I’m going to revisit the same locations working past the point of boredom. It’s easy to keep working to a formula if you’re continuously visit new locations. Instead, I’m going to visit familiar locations which will force me to explore different ways of photographing them.
  4. I’m going to limit my equipment options. Specifically, for landscape photography, we rely on our tripods which helps achieve technically correct images, but because there is effort involved in composing with a tripod, we tend to go straight for the expected image. Removing the tripod means you can shoot fast and loose, exploring compositions outside of the expected.
  5. I’m going to travel to more locations that are not known for landscape photography. Over the past two weeks, I’ve had the privilege of traveling to both Iceland and Lanzarote. Iceland is known as a landscape photography paradise. The problem with this is that you don’t need to work very hard to get “good” photographs. Lanzarote is less of a landscape photography destination. There are great images to be had, but it takes more effort and creativity. Locations like Lanzarote are great for getting out of the formulaic approach.
    Waterfall photography formula

    Merkifoss, a waterfall in Iceland composed to my usual formula for waterfalls.

  6. I’m going to rely on the image to stand for itself as an art form without having to rely on special techniques. Too often, I’ve relied on long exposures to create interest where there was none. A good photograph should rely on light, composition and emotion to work, with technique complimenting the final image.

If the video or this article sparked the realization that you’ve also been working to a formula, I’d love to hear from you what you’re going to do to break out of it. Please leave your suggestions in the comments.

Log in or register to post comments

32 Comments

I was excited to read this because I just had this exact conversation about how formulaic landscape photography has become. There is a line where photographers (or any artist) want thier work to be different but also want thier work to be seen and liked by the most amount of people. I think we skew toward the latter.

Jonathan Reid's picture

For me, it’s not so much that I want to be different, but I definitely don’t want to be following a prescription every time I go out to shoot landscapes. I feel like I have a default that I always use when I shoot landscapes. Maybe being aware of it is enough to break out of it...

Timothy Gasper's picture

You're right....it shouldn't be the point of wanting to be different as much as it should be not doing the same-old-same-old. The problem lies in what pleases the masses. Perhaps we're all just too accustomed to the same-old-same-old and anything outside that box is too 'strange' for us? I don't know. What do you think?

Jonathan Reid's picture

I’m struggling to answer your question, because the only answer I can come up with is a painful one.
For me, if I’m not able to create compelling work without resorting to the tried and tested formula, maybe I’m not the “artist” that I think I am.

Timothy Gasper's picture

No sir, that is not correct. You are ALL of the artist that you are...at this moment. It's just that some doors or windows have not availed themselves to you to explore the greater artist you CAN become.

Jaran Gaarder Heggen's picture

But to become that artist he and we all want to become, we all need to dare to go outside the "box of well known" and challenge our self...
I know I struggle, and often I find myself just not going out and try... It actually started with the digital age, when I started arresting myself for not thinking when photographing, because the cost of film and the time and work in the darkroom was no longer an issue, result... i have thousands of images (not photographs) that's actually worthless for me... (its also hard to delete them)...
... and to turn that effect around, that is really hard, specially when you don't have a ton of money so you also need to think through every move and trip you take...

Patrick Rosenbalm's picture

Interesting article. For certain types of landscape photos my opinion is if it isn't broken don't fix it. Go with what work when necessary. On the other hand if you are going to think out of the box get way out of it. Don't just change you framing and composition angle, Change your exposure and color or remove the color. Think abstract and turn it upside down. Use post processing to get what you want. No rules when being creative! ;-)

I borrowed your waterfall photo to illustrate my point. Hope you don't mind.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Great suggestions, thank you!

David Pavlich's picture

As I was reading the article, post processing in all its wonderment crossed my mind. We can create the image the same way, but we have a myriad options to create artistic rendering that reflects our vision of what is possible. Low and behold, Patrick beat me to it!

Jonathan Reid's picture

Initially, I was considering Patrick’s suggestion and thinking, that doesn’t really work for me as I like a natural looking image, however, I then realised there are post processing techniques that can completely change the look and feel of an image without making it look unnatural, for example, high key.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes sir...you are correct. ALL photos which have ever existed are subjective. What is blahzeh for one person might be the most beautiful shot ever made to another. But then....as photographers we are striving to 'pleases the masses'. If our goal is for income...then this hold true even stronger. But sometimes out-of-the-box can work just fine for that goal too.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Hello Mr. Reid. I agree with all of your 6 points but when you said in point 6..." Too often, I've relied on long exposure to create interest where there was none". Well that's exactly the point....a good photographer SHOULD be able to make a mundane scene look interesting to others. Now THAT'S a sign of an excellent photographer. But I do get what you're saying. I constantly look for the lesser viewed scenery which still convey drama and/or beauty. But....as you said...take the usual cliched shots for a cushion.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I was struggling to verbalise point 6, but now you’ve prompted me in the right direction. A good photographer should be able to find the interest in the mundane, but should be able to do this without resorting to a special effect. I think of great street photographers who pull off interesting out of mundane without any special techniques.

Timothy Gasper's picture

Yes sir...I understand your point, but I was referring mainly to the use of long exposure. It's really not a special affect. But anyway...perhaps I should have been more specific. Sorry.

Mads Peter Iversen's picture

Great article. It's more or less the same formula I follow. I do however feel I want to break out of it. I still enjoy that kind of photography, but then the photo itself has to be a real challenge to make. Different exposures, hard conditions with wind and water, occasional light, everything blended together in a photo I imagined in-field.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I think you’ve touched on something important here - maybe we shoot to a formula because we’ve all been trained to see in this way. For example, as I’m walking through a scene, I see in the near/far foreground background composition. My previsualization is already in this “formula”. Maybe the key to breaking out of it is to previsualize something different.

As far as I’m aware, Galen Rowell was the photographer who popularised this style of landscape photography. Many of his contemporaries are the influential landscape photographers today. But landscape photography existed long before Galen Rowell, so it would probably be a beneficial excercise to study the work of a landscape photographer who shoots outside of this formula.

Ed Sanford's picture

This discussion reminds me of something a wise man once told me. Everyone wants to "think outside of the box." Before you can "think outside of the box, you must first have a box." This deals with hard work, discipline, continuous learning, and mastering best practices. These elements provide a foundation for creativity. I started shooting film 40 years ago. Mastering film photography and dark room processing was damned hard. So, it took a lot of work to be able to emulate a cliche. Digital photography is so automatic that it makes you skip many of the steps that the masters had to learn just to make a picture. That is, you can make pretty good pictures very easily fairly early in the process. For me doing the cliche is OK as long as you can produce good solid, clean images. Coming "out of the box" is extremely difficult and it shouldn't be formulaic. That's why it's so hard to accomplish. It may be that you can only make that once in a lifetime image just once in a lifetime. So, maybe we should relax, continuously learn, stay in the field, keep shooting and that great, different, creative image will come to us when we are emotionally and mentally ready to receive it.

Jonathan Reid's picture

Great advice and analysis!

I build scenes for miniature setups and photography, and i always construct my composition by a certain formula or calculation, like how digital artists do. I don't see anything wrong with it. I even use the golden ratio, the triangle ratio, color theory, anything at my disposal.

I visualise what i want in mind and then get down to sketch the scene by hand, then reconstruct the same thing for photography. If I'm outdoors I'll arrive early and be spending an hour plucking off grass or carrying and moving rocks around to ideal positions if needed before i begin photographing.

In fact when i deviate too much, it feels like something about the composition looks wrong. When i stick to how i always do things like this, success rates are high.

Huw Morgan's picture

What a great article. I've often seen photos of dramatic mountains and light following the formula and inserting a rock or tuft of grass into the foreground because it's expected. A tuft of grass is not interesting.

Every camera club in the nation rewards its members for following the formula and punishes those who do not.

Let's reward radical approaches instead. Look for textures, abstractions, man-made objects, reflections, interesting trees, mist, monochrome, wild colors... Anything but traditional foreground/background.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I think that is what was getting to me the most. I was using foreground just for the sake of it, resulting in “tufts of grass” images.

Ravi Putcha's picture

Yes, I am guilty of formulaic approach in my commercial event photography. I stick to it like my life depends on it. That's what gets my bills paid, keep clients satisfied because they know I am reliable. Now, I am in a rut - boredom of safe formula/recipe is killing...but in commercial shoots there's little time/scope for getting creative once the brief is fulfilled - event is finished and you are exhausted and the client wants to go home.

The mundane is compelling and powerful. It has economic, social weapons that keeps most of the people take beaten path.

The article indeed is insightful.

Jonathan Reid's picture

In my opinion, it’s ok to be stuck in a formula when it’s for a client. I picked landscape photography as an example because usually landscape photography is personal work, not for any particular commission. In your example, you can carry on shooting events to a specific brief and in your own time, shoot however and whatever you want.

Ravi Putcha's picture

I feel that being able to get good formulaic shots is a rite of passage of sort. It lays foundation for more mature work.

I agree fully. You must get confident with fundamentals first and then your style will develop naturally over time. You won't even notice that you start creating unique work, it will just happen.

Jonathan Reid's picture

True, as long as you don’t get too comfortable with the formula that you move on from there

I think that no matter how comfortable you get when you encounter a subject that excites you really deeply you will naturally start to look for a way to convey your thoughts and emotions and stray away from using the formula without even thinking about it, just focusing on the best way to capture what you are feeling. It's my honest belief that this is how personal styles are developed. It just takes a lot of time.

When looking at most awesome modern landscape shots, the question I always get is "what's the message here?". And truthfully, usually, I don't see one. Don't get me wrong, I consider myself to be 100% guilty of this, but I think most of us try to simulate those shiny magazine cover shots and lose the point of photography in the process. We are too focused on the visuals. Yeah, I understand how funny it sounds when talking about visual art, but that's the truth. Yes, those beautiful landscape shots made with a formula ( or without one ) convey the mood of the place... But why, what for, what is your idea here?

What I am trying to say is that when you have a broader story in mind and you try to communicate a message through your art ( I mean, social or philosophical message or whatnot ), it doesn't matter what formulas you rely on as long as you communicate your message. It's your idea that counts. On the other hand, if you are using formulas purely to create visual interest in another "shiny" landscape shot, then you probably need to go as far as abstract to make your photography stand out.

Formulas are just awesome tools that work. It's what we use them for that matters.

Or, let me put it differently.

Imagine a photographer goes to an Amazonian forest to photograph one of the disappearing tribes that will soon vanish from the earth, taking with them all of their unique cultural heritage. And all because greedy white people are deforesting their land.

And uses all the same formulas to tell this story. Given, this probably isn't landscaped photography anymore, but say only landscape shots and a few environmental wide angle portraits are used. How amazing these pictures would be?

No one will even think about the formulas or how they were created on a technical-creative level. Or, for a better example, a photographer can go to a land disappearing because of global warming and create a landscape-story photoshoot.

I say God bless the formulas and those who already know how to use them! Can't wait till I learn all the formulas ( fundamentals ). You guys are worrying about all the wrong stuff :)

P.S Sorry for so much text.

Jonathan Reid's picture

I agree with you and I think I could have expanded this to say that we can be guilty of using formula at the cost of actually saying something with our photography.

More comments