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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!