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.

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32 Comments

Previous comments

Exactly. You can tell a story using all the cliche techniques you want and make it extraordinary as long as your subject and your broader message are not cliches. Even, as long as they are there at all.

the former lacky's picture

my lanscapes are not pretty but I would love to know what people think of mine.
IG@emptycansnyc
let me know what you think. I dont think I have a formula , I do try to make them dramatic and also tend to border line make crispy but I would love some input from other photographers, if your gonna rip me a new ass then please do it in a private message HAHAHAHA please I dont want to get yelled at in front of everyone