Moving Beyond Icons

If there is one thing I have learned from interviewing some of the world’s most interesting and prolific landscape photographers on my podcast, it is that our journeys as nature and landscape photographers are often very similar. Many of us started out as nature junkies, always looking to spend time outside and explore the Great Outdoors. At some point on our path, we picked up a camera, maybe to show people how amazing it was to see the things we were seeing or to document our experiences as explorers and nature lovers. Others took to the camera first and discovered nature second. Whichever path you took in becoming a nature photographer, it is a given that we all started out as beginners. When I reluctantly review my earlier images as a nature photographer, I always come to the same conclusions in my progression:

  • My love for nature exceeded my skills in photography
  • I took some pretty bad photos
  • My photos started getting better
  • I developed some decent skills but had a hard time finding locations to apply them to
  • I gravitated to photographing “the Icons.”

A lot of photographers go on a similar journey and many find themselves bored after a couple of years of grinding to build a portfolio filled with “the Icons.” Three years ago I found myself stuck in that rut and grew very complacent with landscape photography and even considered quitting altogether. It wasn’t as fun as it was when I started out. If you too feel like landscape photography has “lost that lovin’ feeling,” I’m here to tell you that your journey as a nature photographer does not have to end. In fact, it may have just begun.

Chimney Rock On Fire

Why the Icons are photographed

For many of us, this beginning in nature photography is fast and explosive, and it leads us to crave more. We want to learn how to take better photos. We want to photograph more interesting subjects. We want to see the best of what nature has to offer through our lens. Taking it a step further, some of us are also then motivated by what I would call the dark side of humanity that exists in most, if not all of us: ego. Some of us start comparing ourselves to other photographers, many of which have been taking photographs for much longer than us. Some of us start looking for short-cuts to feed the ego. We search for answers. We start copying the great images we see. In 2014, I moved to Portland, Oregon from my home town of Colorado Springs, Colorado. I found myself lost in an entirely new landscape. I was excited to find places to photograph, but I was also out of my element. I turned to the internet for help. I found inspiration from many artists, including Alex Noriega, Marc Adamus, and Ryan Dyar. I was particularly enamored with a shot that Alex Noriega had of Mount Hood on top of Tom, Dick, and Harry Mountain. I tried over and over again to replicate it.

Majestic Mount Hood At Sunset

Social media has played a role in recent years in accelerating this process for some of us. Amazing and fantastic photographs from iconic locations all over the world are at our fingertips. Social media has made these locations well known, and it is almost impossible to go a day without seeing a photograph of one of these Icons. Seeing this imagery triggers some of us to want to take those exact same photographs. We want it for ourselves. Our photographic juices are flowing, and we look for ways to quench our thirst.

For many of us, this means that we end up photographing “the Icons.” Why is that? Well, iconic locations and compositions are a fantastic way to learn and gain skills quickly. Many photographers also say that the Icons sell better at art fairs. It is also a great way to feed the ego and to play it safe. Don’t get me wrong, I love to visit these locations myself. It is obvious why they have become iconic locations – they are stunning. The images we see blow us away. I remember seeing a Marc Adamus photograph of Elowah Falls in 2013 and wanting to get the same exact composition myself. And I did.

Elowah Falls Reflecting Pool

I want to state up front, there is nothing wrong with photographing icons! If this is what you love to do, then more power to you. When you are first starting out, there is nothing like the feeling of photographing an Icon in good conditions. You feel like you’ve finally made it as a landscape photographer. Many of us have been there and understand why people do it. Let’s be honest, it can be a lot of fun! Like so many other nature photographers that have come before me, I have slowly outgrown the desire to photograph the Icons. It has minimal appeal to me. In fact, the thought of seeking out a popular iconic location with hundreds of other people standing nearby is the opposite of my idea of a good time.

What next?

I distinctly remember the moment when I realized that shooting Icons was no longer enjoyable to me. I drove into Ridgway, Colorado to meet up with other Nature photographers on a late September afternoon in 2017. I had some time to kill so I thought I’d go see what the Dallas Divide overlook was like. I figured that it would be pretty empty on a Thursday afternoon and the conditions were not particularly great that year for fall color. I was wrong. The parking lot was filled with tour buses and other vehicles. I counted four drones in the air, all seeking that perfect angle of an iconic shot. The light was not even good! I didn’t even get my camera out. Instead, I decided I would seek out my own spot to enjoy the sunset from, something unique, something that afforded a scene that was perhaps never shot before.

The rest of that trip, I avoided iconic spots. I avoided the classic Chimney Rock shot. I avoided the popular Owl Creek Pass spots. I wanted to challenge myself as a photographer to find something for me. Something that I would have to work for, not only physically but also compositionally. It was a considerable risk. I felt uncomfortable not knowing if I’d find anything worthwhile to photograph. Would my time off from work be a waste? I found a trail going straight up the side of a cliff band above Silver Jack Reservoir. I explored the high mesa for vantage points that afforded unique and interesting views. My curious explorative nature finally paid off. A storm moved into the valley, and I was greeted with some of the most interesting light I’d ever seen from this area. It was dramatic, moody, and something I’d never seen from any other photographer.

Big Blue Wilderness

From that point forward I vowed to seek out photographs that were uniquely mine. A risky venture to be sure. What has followed for me has been an incredible resurgence in both my appreciation of nature and my interest in landscape photography. I went from seeking out icons to seeking out images that spoke to me and fed my soul as a photographer.

What to expect

I’m sure this all sounds pretty amazing to you at this point, right? Well, it’s not all puppy dogs and ice cream, let me assure you. Photographing for yourself outside of Icons results in a lot of failures. Without reference images to rely on for inspiration, you’re forced to spend a lot more time studying composition and light. You are also forced to come away with far fewer keepers. In the past two years, I have created some fantastic and unique images, but I have also come away with some awful photographs! My success rate has dropped significantly, but I know my photography has improved by leaps and bounds. The increase in failure as an artist also means that there is more opportunity to learn and grow. I have never been more excited to be a landscape photographer than I am now, all thanks to my pursuit of more unique images.

Decay And Rebirth

An extra benefit to seeking out unique images is that you often find yourself back to your roots as a nature photographer. You find yourself alone in fantastic locations. You experience the raw power and beauty of nature in areas that most people will never get to see. You also open your mind up to photographing things that might be more intimate, more special to you, and more aligned with your personal vision. Focusing on this type of photography has really helped me re-develop my vision as an artist. I see the world in a completely different way now. I see photographic opportunities all around me. Granted, my ability to capitalize on those opportunities has decreased as well.

Chair Mountain Blazing Panorama

Do I still photograph iconic locations? Absolutely, yes – I try to get my own angle and interpretation of those scenes now. Maybe I shoot them with a different lens than is popular. Perhaps I focus on something at the location that is often missed in traditional presentations. Maybe I hike above the area or near the area to find something different. The bottom line – they are no longer at the top of my list in terms of my desire to get out and photograph them.

Ruby Sunset Panorama

How you can try

Some may be familiar with the work of a black and white photographer named Cole Thompson. He practices what he calls photographic celibacy – he purposely does not look at other photographers’ work. In March of 2018, I took my first trip to Iceland. I made a point to not look at any photography from Iceland before I left. I wanted to challenge myself to find interesting ways to photograph the incredible scenes that I would encounter there. I did not want any influence from the outside world on my artistic vision. The results of that experiment were noticeable.

Gufufoss

I came away with some very unique and compelling images from Iceland that I am very proud of. I also came back with some of the ugliest photographs you’ve ever seen from Iceland. I still found myself shooting iconic locations from time-to-time as well. Such is the process of growth and learning as a photographer. I encourage you to try this technique the next time you plan a nature photography trip. It does not have to be an all-or-nothing approach.

Moss Abstract

Another exercise you can try is “finding your voice.” My friend Jason Matias has developed a fantastic way to do this, and I encourage you to give it a shot. The process involves an opposite approach to what I just described by which you immerse yourself in images that you find interesting. It forces you to take inventory of the aspects and variables that each image has that you find appealing. You then look for similarities and focus on what you should then look for when you are out taking photos.

Lonely And Thriving

In summary, to move beyond the Icons, you should do these ten things:

  • Be open to possibilities – look for locations and subjects that speak to you and that are unique to your vision.
  • Be willing to fail – a lot.
  • Bring a friend – often I have found doing this with a friend creates even more opportunity. You bounce ideas off each other and see the world in different ways.
  • Get honest feedback on your images from photographers you trust. The NPN critique forum is a great place to start.
  • Be your own harshest critic. I look back on the last two years of images I have captured, and so many were not very good, but I look at them and ask how I could have made them better. This helps me the next time I’m in the field.
  • Spend more time exploring. You never know what you will find.
  • Try limiting your lens selection to a single prime lens. This will force you to find new ways to see the world.
  • Experiment more. Shoot at night or the middle of the day. Use a wide-angle lens on a close-up subject.
  • Slow down. Walk slower. Be more intentional with your images. Take the time to examine the landscape. Take inventory of what is available to photograph and ask yourself how those elements could work (or not work) for your photograph.
  • Stop comparing your work to the work of other photographers. This will end your desire to feed your ego and force you to spend more time cultivating your creativity.

After trying this out – share your experiences below. What did you expect? What actually happened? What did you learn?

I look forward to seeing your responses! Thanks for reading.

About the Author
Matt is a mountain climber, adventurer, and fine art nature and landscape photographer. Matt specializes in unique and hard-to-reach locations and subjects, including the highest mountains in Colorado. Matt loves the craft of landscape photography and has produced a podcast dedicated to that love affair since April 2017 called “F-Stop Collaborate and Listen.”