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Comp Stomping

(© Ian Plant) I was first introduced to the term “comp stomping”—the intentional reenactment of a specific composition created by someone else—a few years back. I’ve previously talked about icon chasing, which involves photographing famous scenes that have been shot over and over by hundreds of thousands of people; comp stomping takes it a step further, copying more than just the location, but rather the specific composition itself.

There’s nothing wrong with comp stomping, especially for beginners. In fact, the reason people usually offer for stomping comps is that it helps them learn. I think there is some truth to this (but not as much as people hope). Of course, every single one of us has done some comp stomping, and we all have stomped comps in our portfolios. So I’m not going to tell you that comp stomping is inherently bad. In fact, to one extent or another, all of our work is derivative of other people’s work, and even the most creative among us cannot escape the shadow of the photographers who have come before. So we’re all a little bit stompy—it’s just a question of degree.

Filling your portfolio full of stomped comps represents one extreme. On the other end of the spectrum is the so-called “photography celibacy” movement, which advocates never looking at the work of others. This, of course, is an easy cure for the comp stomp itch—you can’t copy what you don’t see. Personally, I don’t like any philosophy which combines absolute commands with the word “celibacy,” but it might be fair to say I’m an unintentional casual adherent, as I don’t pay much attention these days to what other photographers are doing.

Why? It’s simple, really. Once you see a successful photo by someone else, you are instantly trapped by a very basic human need: to covet. Now “covet” is a nifty little word, one which has been around for a very long time, and it basically means to feel inordinate desire for that which belongs to another. Whether it be Commandment-style (your neighbor’s wife) or something more relevant to our discussion at hand (someone else’s awesome composition), our basic human instinct to possess gets switched into overdrive when we see something shiny and new. It happened to me recently when fellow Dreamscapes blogger Joe Rossbach showed me one of his rain forest images when we bumped into each other at Olympic National Park. Want to guess what I ended up doing for the next four days? Yep, that’s right—shooting the rain forest. Even though I wasn’t necessarily looking to copy his exact shot, seeing the successful result of Joe’s artistic vision changed mine. And that’s something I’m really trying to avoid at this point in my career.

“Ebb and Flow”—Olympic National Park, USA.
Canon 5DIII, 16mm, 2-stop graduated neutral density filter, ISO 100, f/9, 0.5 seconds.

I ended up taking a break from comp stomping the rain forest to go down to Ruby Beach for sunset. Of course, Ruby is a prime comp stomp location, so in an effort to get off the stomp train, I decided to do my best to let the unpredictable clouds and waves dictate my composition, rather than the famous unchanging (and therefore easily stomped) Olympic sea stacks themselves. But even when you aren’t looking to mimic someone else, parallel independent discoveries happen all the time; two photographers shooting the same location can certainly come up with the same composition even without knowledge of what the other person is doing. So did I come up with something original? Beats me. I certainly wasn’t intentionally copying someone else’s shot. Accidental comp stomps are better than premeditated ones, I suppose. Maybe not. All I know is that too many of us are trying too often to photograph the same locations or subjects, so a lot of us are going to end up with very similar shots even when we try to come up with something different.

If comp stomping is your thing, you shouldn’t feel bad about it. You are, after all, in very good company. But if you really want your art to be your art, then you need to unmoor yourself from the safe harbor of imitation, and immerse yourself instead in the swirling seas of creativity—and let the tides take you where they may.