Chasing Icons

(© Ian Plant) Photo icons are those places made famous long ago by other photographers, like Half Dome in Yosemite, Snake River Overlook in the Grand Tetons, and Toroweap high above the Grand Canyon. Actually, more to the point, it isn’t really just the places that are famous, but the original compositions themselves which have achieved “classic” status. For example, Snake River Overlook isn’t all that exciting unless you include Ansel’s famous s-curve, even though today the curve is mostly blocked by trees. No matter: photographers still flock by the hundreds every sunrise and sunset to this spot, each trying to capture a bit of Ansel’s magic for themselves. And so it is with every photo icon, a daily ritual involving hordes of photographers vying for a handful of good tripod spots. If the Grand Tetons could move, I bet they’d at least shake their heads in disbelief, if not evacuate the area altogether in order to get some well-deserved privacy.

I’ve never been a fan of shooting icons, although I find myself in front of them from time to time for a variety of reasons (such as with the shot above from Snake River Overlook). There are, of course, many good reasons to shoot icons. After all, icons become icons because they are beautiful and wondrous to behold. And let’s face it, pros need the icons in their portfolios, because icons sell. On the other hand, I can think of many more reasons not to shoot icons. Here are my top five.

1. When shooting a photo icon, you’re not really exploring your own artistic vision, rather you are exploring someone else’s vision. This is especially true when the icon is composition specific. Someone a long time ago took the time to find the location, realize its potential, and bring that potential to fruition. While there may be some room for originality when shooting an icon, someone else did most of the creative work for you already. (I have an interesting discussion about artistic originality in my recent blog post Columbus and the Egg.)

2. Everyone shoots icons. Do you really want a portfolio of images that looks like everyone else’s? Besides, if you are competing with a million images from the exact same spot, your shot had better be really spectacular to even begin to stand out from the crowd. It’s hard to make something special and unique when fifty other people are there with you capturing the same light.

3. Everyone shoots icons. This one bears repeating! Do you really want to show up to shoot in a place where you are battling a hundred other photographers for the three best tripod spots? Joe Rossbach just told the tale of leading our workshop group to world-famous Schwabacher's Landing in Grand Teton National Park. We showed up with our group an hour before sunrise and there were already dozens of photographers on location, setting up in the dark. We took our group somewhere else, got a better view of the mountains with better autumn color and better reflections than we would have found at Schwabacher's, and we didn’t see a single other photographer.

4. Many icons are icons now in name only. Schwabacher's Landing is a perfect example; thirty years ago it was a great place to reflect the Tetons in still water. Today, the trees have grown up enough that they nearly block the view, and Schwabacher’s is a pale shade of what it used to be. Yet people still flock there en masse, completely unaware of the fact that much better views can be found if they just explore a little bit.

5. The icons aren’t even necessarily the best places to shoot. Most of them became icons because they are easy to shoot. A little bit of elbow grease goes a long way these days. It doesn’t take a huge amount of effort to get off the beaten path and explore new areas. Try it and you might be amazed at what you find!

No matter what I or anyone else says, the famous photo icons will continue to draw photographers in ever increasing numbers. Which, in the end, may become the deciding factor: when the parking spaces run out, many photographers will be forced to go somewhere else. I do hope, however, that some of you will decide to strike out on your own, and chase your own artistic vision instead of chasing icons. Who knows, maybe the icons of the future will be the places you discover!

P.S. Visit my Dreamscapes photoblog for more tips and techniques from me and some of my colleagues. Join my monthly email mailing list for photo tips and exclusive offers delivered straight to your inbox!


    I agree with all your points but I think there is one caveat in favor of shooting the icons. I think a photographer is pressured to photograph the icons as a kind of rite of passage in the same way a mountain climber is pressured to scale the icons to gain credibility and acceptance among their peers.

    “What? You mean you haven’t shot/climbed Snake River/Everest yet?”

    I’m no pro, but as a wannabe landscape photographer and layman hiker, I have to say I really enjoy “notching the icon belt” and attempting to gain the perspective of the masters and develop the understanding of why a particular site became an icon in the first place. In person is a great way to analyze the photographer’s methods of composition.

    Good article, Ian. I enjoy reading your blogs.

    This is ironic Ian and couldn’t have had better timing. It’s as if your in our heads!

    This morning I drove down to Cadillac Mtn in Acadia NP this morning arriving at 5am for a sunrise that wasnt to be. The mountain was socked in clouds.

    I then headed to the other icon – Otter Cliffs. Trudged down there, set up the tripod, looked at live view and walked away. I felt the “been there done that” cloud looming over my head.

    Instead I wandered the carriage trails, streams and other wooded areas finding interesting “little things” to photograph. Some of these little things look good (no not great but oh well).

    I agree with Bob in “notching the belt” and feel that tug sometimes but thankfully not today. Do I have a great photo of Otter Cliffs? No, not yet. Maybe another time when my belt needs notching.

    I’ve come to realize, within myself, that my photography had gotten more interesting as all of the “notches in the belt” I desired have been filled. As my confidence in my own instincts and vision have grown, the lure of the iconic shot as faded a bit. I love’em sure, but chasing light in overcrowded, overdone places is not what it used to be for me. Bring on the unknown and serendipitous!

    I personally lose my creative mojo when I’m at a popular place and everybody is casually snapping away with their digital SLR (or even worse, cell phone cameras). I allow myself to become distracted by what all the other people are doing and find it hard to set down the tripod and get serious. Plus, Ian makes a point about the places that are easiest to get to – and I have no trouble wandering for minutes or hours to find some solitude. That time spent wandering is when the creativity comes back in full force.

    Hi Ian-

    I met you once on Emerald Pools Trail, 11/2010, while you were conducting one of your workshops. You were so helpful setting me up for some shots of the falls without me asking, and I wasn’t even a part of your group! I was there solo for my own experience. That bit of reaching out has left an indelible mark on me. When a workshop of yours interests me and the timing is right, I will certainly sign up for one.

    Anyway, I do agree with your article. I’ve done many an iconic photo, but always go into alternate areas – the least route followed in order to capture shots that are unique and relatively under-explored. Although as time passes, it is getting harder and harder to go the lesser path traveled due to several limb surgeries and the onset of arthur’s-itis. Go easy on some of us iconographers, as some of us are by providence relegated to these shots pretty much!

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