Recently, I saw a collection of April Fools posts on Facebook by photographers who tried baking in some irony by sharing photos from a oft-photographed US National Park that they dubbed as their most creatively challenging, all while being derisive about the homogeny of photos being posted by others online. Now, while I know that these posts were mostly written in jest, I also believe that there is truth behind every joke, especially if you continued on to read the comments on each of the posts. As I read these posts, I felt a tinge of sadness because it was clear that the very spirit of their own photographic pursuits had been dulled amidst the jilt and jade of the Internet culture.
To help these folks out and to serve up this basic reminder about photography, I’d like to share this one simple tip: just be there and get the shot. To do anything otherwise, to be blunt, is simply you making excuses for yourself. I apologize if I come across as crass, it’s just that I’m in the process of writing a book that will be published later this year and a dominant theme within it is very much related to this topic at hand. My philosophy with photography has been and will always be: Until it has been photographed by me, it hasn’t been photographed. I don’t care if 400 people are standing right next to me getting the exact same shot. I don’t care if a Magnum photographer was standing exactly where I was a day earlier and got an even better shot. Until I have been able to employ my own creativity, personality, and sense of style, it hasn’t been photographed.
But, it’s easy for me to say this. Instead, let me share with you some examples of what a typical scene could be at a popular destination and what the results can look like if you simply apply yourself, make the effort, and be there.
Of all the complaints that I read from these posts, the busyness of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park ranks way up there. Yes, most photographers have the intention of making it to the Arch to catch the sun bursting thru it. If you don’t give yourself at least 90 minutes before sunrise, you’ll likely find yourself working around a firing line of other photographers who simply got there before you. A scene like this one is not uncommon at all and is actually quite thin compared to other times that I’ve been there.
So what if you do get there and there is a crowd? What does that mean? Do you just turn around and head back to the parking area? No!!! You’re a human and most of the people in the crowd in front of you are humans too. Be polite, gracious and understanding and ask if you could fit in between them. Don’t expect that they’ll pick up and move but it’s totally fair to try and work with the others.
Look, most everyone who goes to Mesa Arch at sunrise is looking for the same photo. And why shouldn’t they get it? It’s a magical few moments and everyone who pays their park fees has the right to witness it and remember it the way they wish. I’m thankful for my opportunity to photograph it the handful of times that were available to me.
And once I got my photo, do you think I just stood in one place, burning the early morning light? Of course not! One of the most important things to remember is that you can do so much to put your own stamp on a scene that is photographed all the time. As soon as I was happy with what I got, I gave my spot up to another eager and thankful photographer and walked to the edge of the arch, putting on my fisheye lens. Not a single other photographer was standing there so I had the entire area to myself, which was great because the fisheye lens has a field of view of 180 degrees.
I never knew what a horde of photographers looked like until I photographed sunrise at the Angkor Wat temple in Siem Reap, Cambodia. I had heard stories but nothing prepared me for the throngs of people who descended upon the area. Fortunately, our guide was very knowledgeable and understood what our needs were, so he made sure that we were at our location at 4AM, several hours before the sun was due to rise. As you could imagine, we were the first ones there! And as you could imagine, just as soon as the first hints of blue began to appear in the sky, we were no longer alone.
Again, just because thousands of people on any given day want to try to capture the sun rising above Angkor Wat, does it give you a reason not to capture it for yourself? Of course not. Sure, you may hate yourself for getting up an an ungodly hour, but the effort of having your own beautiful memories of this legendary place is certainly worth it… especially if you’re lucky enough to have a masterful explosion of colors and clouds in the process
The Brooklyn Bridge
I saved this one for last because I was born and raised in Brooklyn. I’ve crossed this bridge more times than I could possibly remember and every single time I did, I’d have my camera with me. So would a billion other people. And that’s not counting the walking commuters, bicyclists, and other tourists. The place is a madhouse. But it’s also a marvel of architecture that makes for some of the most timeless photos ever. At any given time, day or night, you will be greeted by any number of people.
Again, these people have just as much right to cross the span and photograph it as you do. Does that mean that you shouldn’t get your own photos? Absolutely not. It just means that you need to challenge yourself to find a photo that is uniquely yours and that can mean a bunch of different things. It could mean that you’re hunting for a unique composition or it could mean that you’re applying your own processing style to a similar photo taken by millions of other people. Whatever the case, it is on your to figure it out. It’s the very goal of being a photographer. And wouldn’t you know it? One of my favorite photos that I’ve ever taken was of this very bridge and I’d never have gotten it if I subscribed to the defeatist attitude that I’ve seen pervade the Internet lately. Just be there and get your shot.