Landscape photography used to be about discovering new places and creating incredible images that no one had seen before. Nowadays, it feels like it's more about checking the location tag of something spotted on Instagram and photographing a scene that has already been shot to death.
Last week’s video from Thomas Heaton made for some uncomfortable viewing: 30 photographers all jostling for position in order to capture a scene that the conditions simply weren’t going to offer. The scrum, Heaton describes, “was not friendly,” and needlessly so, as the results would never come close to matching what countless others had already shot in much better conditions.
The thought of sharpening my elbows to try and squeeze myself into position to get this shot alongside 30 other rabid photographers is abhorrent. I can understand wanting to grab a nice photo, but anyone serious about landscape photography must surely appreciate that there’s more to it than buying an expensive camera and joining a queue.
Of course, it's fun to gain the experience and pride in capturing something iconic, but there must be something more satisfying to be gained from creating an image that you’ve had to work for, rather than walking less than a mile from a parking lot to sit alongside everyone else who’s had exactly the same idea that morning, just like those the previous morning, and no doubt the next.
These classic locations are bound to draw a lot of interest from photographers, and when social media — Instagram in particular — is so keen to reward repetition (originality is dead, it seems), it’s no wonder that queues are starting to form. That view of the Mesa Arch is on its way to becoming as hackneyed and worn out as photographing your other half pretending to hold up the Leaning Tower of Pisa. Arguably, the Tower of Pisa requires more effort as most people get on an airplane and travel to a different country, and at least those tourists understand what they're doing — regurgitating a tired old cliche for a bit of fun.
The democratization of technology is certainly a contributing factor. Never has so much photographic equipment been in the hands of so many people, and the urge to go and grab a pretty picture — however unoriginal — is inevitable. We look back fondly on the time when photographers were pioneers and iconoclasts, seeking out incredible locations and making beautiful sights available for consumption by the masses. As Fstoppers' Patrick Hall pointed out in response to Heaton’s video, with the increasing number of photographers and the lower cost of travel, the proportion of those with a sense of adventure is greatly diminished, suggesting that most photographers today are risk-minimizers rather than risk-takers. There are still plenty of pioneers, but they are vastly outnumbered by those who are absorbed by the pleasure gained from the outcome rather than the process.
The thought that so many people play it so safe with such groundbreaking technology is somewhat depressing.
Wanting to take a photograph is in itself a great reason to go on an adventure. Why then, are so many people happy to follow the crowds and stack their tripods up in front of something that really does not need to be photographed ever again? Of course, pretty much everything has been photographed (my images being no exception), but these shortcuts to trophy images mean missing out on so much of what makes photography so rewarding.
Social media is certainly a factor, but be warned: the competition for cultural status and ever-growing validation is hollow and short-lived. Here is my plea: take photographs for the adventure, not for your Instagram profile. Why? Because photographs are more than trophies. You have a choice of where you will be in five years: jaded about Instagram and with a load of undiscerning followers whose likes will never translate into commissions or sales, or sitting with a hard drive full of incredible memories after five years of adventures that have enriched your life and taken you to places that you never thought possible, connecting with the world at a human level rather than through the lens of social media.
Pack light. Get lost. Take a chance that you'll come home with nothing. And as Thomas Heaton put it: “Let’s break out the long lenses. Let’s go and explore."