Ever felt bad for photographing an iconic location? I have been part of the landscape photography community for some years now and I have heard many different opinions; some very strong and even demeaning, such as “photographing iconic locations makes you a bad photographer”.
Arguably, some of my best photos have been those from the iconic locations. For me, it does not say much since I mainly shoot those iconic locations, but they are so much more than just target practice.
First, let me start out by saying that copying photos from iconic locations is a terrible way of learning to compose a photo. If you do not have or know the theories behind making “great” photos, you will basically just be copying other people’s work and you will be taking the photo without knowing why the photo works. That might be good for honing your editing skills, but for learning how to compose a photo, it is not ideal. However, there are certainly good reasons for visiting and photographing iconic locations.
Humans Put Value Into the Locations
Iconic locations are iconic for a reason. That might be for historical or aesthetic reasons, but often a combination. To me, that in itself is both inspirational and motivational, the location provides a subject with which most people attribute some kind of value. That makes them worth visiting and photographing. For a little Dane like myself, visiting the Golden Gate, The Tunnel View in Yosemite Valley, Monument Valley, Zabriskie Point in Death Valley, the impressive Red Woods of California, or Columbia River Gorge is a huge thing because I as a human being put value into these locations. For a landscape photographer it feels like attending a concert with your favorite band. That makes it all worth it.
This was the reason I went to Iceland in the first place. Because it was just so very beautiful and I had started to put value into these locations. If I had not been inspired by the behind-the-scenes for “Photographing the World with Elia Locardi” I would have probably not become the landscape photographer I am today, leading workshops in Iceland, having a flourishing YouTube channel, and writing for Fstoppers.
There are many arguments against photographing iconic locations and I think the main resentment comes from a feeling of being unoriginal. I would, however, argue that originality and uniqueness in itself does not equate to a good photo. However, at most of the iconic locations you really have to think outside the box if you want to create a unique composition, which the rest of the landscape photography community have not seen before. That challenge seems daunting to some people, but if you are up for it and succeed, it can be a very rewarding feeling. Another thought to this is “how much difference is required to be original?”.
Only Known Within the Landscape Photography Community
It is only in the landscape photography community that many of these locations have been photographed to death. Outside our community, the famous landmarks have been seen before, but not many people have seen the “best” photos from here. It is easy for you to do “better” than what most non-photographers have seen before, which is mainly tourist photos. The lesser known locations to the general public such as Kirkjufell, Skogafoss, Stokksnes, Hamnøy, the yellow cabin at Sakrisøy, Uttakliev beach (just to mention a few from Iceland and Norway), haven’t even been seen by most people. My brother still looks like a big question mark when I ask him what Kirkjufell is.
Despite this, there are more photos taken at these locations than ever before. Our community of landscape photographers is relatively small and our photos basically drown in selfies, baby photos, and cat photos on social media. There is no way my photo displaying the gorgeous Northern Lights above Kirkjufell can compete with my friend’s newborn baby concerning “popularity” – and nor should it! Humans are biologically fine-tuned to love babies, themselves (basic survival instinct) and cute animals. Beautiful nature can wait!
Iconic locations are famous, which makes them relatable to non-photographers. People love something they can relate to. This gives a bigger chance of likes, engagement, shares, and reach, which in our age of social media could potentially lead to money, if you know how to leverage it. A great photo of the Eiffel Tower would probably do better than a great photo of Kirkjufell and that would probably do better than a great photo of somewhere even less well known.
Meet New Friends
At many of these iconic locations, a lot of other photographers and videographers hang around. If you are into all that social stuff – called interaction – you can end up meeting some really great new people and potentially friends (and maybe even clients). It is fun to meet all the other crazy people, who defy the early hours just to get the perfect light. You might both learn something and get some tips on other great locations. Engage with the community and make new friends. A location where I always end up talking with others are at Stokksnes in Iceland. It is a very popular area and you can be sure that a lot of the people who are there are probably other landscape photographers. Here is a photo from Stokksnes (also known as Vestrahorn).
Do It for Yourself
Probably the best argument to photograph iconic locations, is related to my first point. Shoot for yourself and your own happiness and entertainment. Most photographers do not dream about having that big career within landscape photography. They photograph for the sake of photographing or pleasure, just like any other hobby or interest. When that is the goal, there are absolutely no reasons not to photograph the iconic locations. Well, maybe beside the crowds.
In the featured video below I talk about photographing the most iconic location in Lofoten, Norway – Hamnøy. It is an absolutely beautiful and idyllic location where we had the most fantastic sunrise!
This is a popular topic these days! Great article and great images, Mads. I look forward to reading and seeing more of your work!
Well done Mads! Interesting subject and I agree with you. Great first article from you! Keep it up buddy!
Thanks for taking time to write about this. I'm absolutely a fan of seeking out some of the worlds iconic locations. I firmly believe it's a good way to ensure you have a great subject to help justify the cost of your travel. Hopefully, its also a photographic accomplishment that motivates you initially for getting there, but ultimately turns out to be the inspiration for a larger journey that entails a more complete exploration of that destination and leading to a desire to explore the world further.
I believe that if you are lucky enough to be in such a beautiful or iconic place, you should definitely shoot for yourself and make images you like. That inspires me more than anything else to continue shooting and to see out such spots. Even if they've been visited by hundreds or thousands of other people those iconic locations are still beautiful and there's always a chance that you'll be able to take away something unique.
"There is no way my photo displaying the gorgeous Northern Lights above Kirkjufell can compete with my friend’s newborn baby concerning “popularity” – and nor should it! Humans are biologically fine-tuned to love babies, themselves (basic survival instinct) and cute animals. Beautiful nature can wait!"
Beg to differ, but I'd much rather see a great photo of the northern lights than another boring baby photo anytime any day. In fact, I've unfollowed almost everything on social media that's just superficial drivel e.g. most regular people.
Yeah I mainly ment from the perspective of non-photographers ;)
Couldn't agree more. The second a friend squeezes out a kid, I know it's only a matter of time until they flood my feed with bad photos of their spawn.
Great read. And I agree with you, Mads. Looking forward to reading more from you.
I can't consciously remember when I last did anything because someone told me to. I'm well aware that there are plenty of people (mostly photographers) who believe we shouldn't take shots of iconic subjects because so many have already been taken. Your article was very encouraging - now I know I was right all the time - LOL.
To be honest about it - I do have a tendency to "find a new angle" - another bad habit of mine is a tendency not to be one of the herd. So it's entirely possible that I MAY have a few shots of the Tour Eiffel that are not quite the same as what you might find on 10 million shots of it taken with a cellphone.
But at the end of the day, I really don't care - I do as I please, and be damned to "other people's opinions". Life is for living, and we only get one shot at that!
Absolutely, do it for yourself. While this wasn't a landscape photo, I photographed history; the final launch of the Space Shuttle. There's advice on the web to not photograph your first launch; but since this was my first and final launch, I did both. Sure there are photographers with NASA credentials that allows one to set up remote cameras.
But I didn't want to look at photos taken by others. Sure, they're nice; but I want my own. I didn't stay glued behind the viewfinder "spraying and praying"; I was shooting Kodak Ektar 100.
Your work never fails to impress, Mads.
Great in depth article! Could not agree more :)
Excellent stuff Mads- I love going to those iconic locations- they are what they are for a reason- their beauty!