Follow Your Vision (by Ian Plant)

I just spent ten days photographing Zion National Park, and I saw something that has become increasingly common in the past few year—photographers wandering around with pages of photographs printed off the Internet. Presumably, they were on the hunt to recreate images they had seen taken by other photographers.

I know that some photographers might view this as creative thievery. Personally, I don't buy into this notion. Some people simply want to get the "classic" shots, and in my opinion there is nothing wrong with this. It happens to be a great way for beginning photographers to learn the ropes. Besides, we've all done it, to some extent or another—how many of us have photographed the same view of Delicate Arch or Half Dome in Yosemite, all made famous by previous generations of photographers? 

But at some point you need to find your own vision, and break free of the ghosts of the past. Photograph what inspires you, and learn to put your own personal stamp on your work. As your vision emerges, your work will achieve a coherence that will become increasingly clear to your viewers.

I spent two days wandering the famous Virgin River Narrows, doing my best to follow my vision. I didn't try to be at the "right place at the right time" to get the classic shots, which have been photographed more times than any of us care to imagine. Instead, I reacted to convergences of light and spatial flow. Certain things catch my eye—shapes and curves, reflected light, a progression of compositional elements leading the eye into a scene—so I let these things guide my photography. 

I've been eyeing the image above for two years now. It's no real surprise why—the simple, unifying shape of the curving river attracted me like a moth to flame. Last year, the cottonwoods hadn't turned enough to make the shot work. This year, they were ablaze with full autumn color. I scouted this location on my first day into the Narrows, and determined the best time to be there to get optimal lighting conditions. On my second trip I returned, ready to capture the scene while it was bathed in beautiful light reflected off of parts of the canyon walls that were in the sunlight. A wide-angle perspective allowed me to capture the full sweep of the glowing curve, but I was careful to exclude any sunlit parts of the canyon, as they would create too much contrast in the scene. I used a polarizer filter to remove some glare from wet surfaces, but I turned the filter only partially because I wanted to retain the reflections in the water. An ISO setting of 400 allowed me to select a shutter speed that would blur the water, but not to the point where I lost detail in the white rapids altogether. Technical details: Canon 5D Mark II camera, 24-104mm lens (@24mm), polarizer filter, ISO 400, f/16, 1 second.

In the end, I created images that, although they may not cause people to catch their breath the way many of the classic shots do, are a product of my vision and no one else's. I doubt that anyone will ever walk around the Narrows with printouts of these images, but I guess that's a good thing! 

P.S. I'll be presenting a series of images from my Zion trip on my daily photoblog over the next few weeks. Subscribe to my RSS feed to keep updated when I post new images!

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    Hi Ian, you make a number of good points. I know for myself, an enthusiastic but rank amateur, I print out shots from places I go not to copy them but to help me avoid them so I can try to put my own vision on what I see. Yes, I shoot an icon as well and like doing it, but maybe those guys, like me, with the photos are trying not to copy what’s been done. Really enjoy your work and blog.

    Thanks for commenting Steve! I certainly hope I didn’t come off as disparaging anyone carrying out printouts – just something I noticed that inspired this post – I’ve got nothing against the practice, whether one is trying to recreate a shot, or trying to avoid what’s been done before. In fact, as I mentioned, I think it can be a good way for people to learn. It is good to know, however, that you focus on finding your own voice when making photographs!


    Thanks for an excellent article, like your insights. I get my inspiration from many local photographers. One is Nick Carver from Laguna Beach, CA. I study his work and then apply it with my own personal twist. An example is a seascape shot at Monterey. Here I used a 10-20mm Nikkor to get great foregrounds while still keeping the horizon in sight.

    Regards, Erik

    Hi Ian. No it did not come across as disparaging at all. Just wanted to give my thoughts on how I use the printouts. I as well, have no issue with how anyone chooses to shoot, especially since no two shots can ever be exactly the same, even if using a printout.

    Ian, I don’t think it’s creative thievery, so much as the fact that those of us who have not yet mastered the craft feel a genuine need to learn by trying to recreate the images we have seen taken by master photographers. It’s a kind of pass/fail test we set ourselves. If we pass, if we can take an image that almost exactly replicates a famous one that we carry around inside our visual memory, then, in a way, we say, “OK, I’ve proven to myself that I can do that” and then it gives us a kind of liberating feeling, as if we are now free to move and try to images in your own personal style. I have never gone so far as to carry around printouts of images but I certainly carry many around in my head.

    Thanks for your comments Shaun, I think you have put it very well. I personally think that the “creative thievery” advocates need to lighten up a bit – all artists stand on the shoulders of those who came before them, and there’s nothing wrong with that!

    Ian, lately I’ve been thinking a lot about maintaining one’s photographic integrity in a trendy world, and your post here adds to my “collection” of thoughts. The photos are gorgeous. Please DON’T worry about them being less able than the “classic” shots to cause the viewer to catch one’s breath; it’s the striking originality that does this, not seeing the same thing over and over, no matter how “classic” the shot. Please keep up your good work, both shooting and writing.

    Hi Ian, I met you while you were shooting the “Around the Bend” image. I’m still impressed with the composition you found there. Great article too, I couldn’t agree more. Not to be too redundant, but in my current stage of photography I love to mix up comps with my unique visions along with those “stunner” comps that have been photographed before, because as the pros who’ve shot them before found, they really help attract viewers to your portfolio. I guess the idea then would be that the viewer can see your own style and vision as a whole because they found your work through a more spectacular image. But as I found out that day in the narrows, EXPERIENCE finding unique comps is irreplaceable. As a photographer you have to make it a habit, so when the opportunity is there you don’t miss it.

    Hey Wayson, it was a real pleasure meeting you and talking with you. I’ve been meaning to check out your deviantArt portfolio, just haven’t gotten over to DA yet since I’ve been back, but it is on my to do list today! You are correct, it is a good idea to have some classics in one’s portfolio – they are classics for a reason. Thanks for adding your perspective to the discussion!

    I agree that it is good for people starting out to try and capture scenes as past professionals, that is how they train in ateliers. But after a time it is time to realize your own creative vision and its expression.

    I love how you often compose to the bare bones forcing a viewer to see what you feel about a scene. Great shot Ian.


    Todays open world does create the feeling that someone is “going to steal my work”. Yet the image taken from nature belongs to us all. Also, if someone wants to take my image or the same image as me, I think of it as flattery. I have been working hard, as others have to be able to create my style…very hard today to have one’s own style. Take Sunsets for example. It is very difficult to shoot one that is new.

    Thanks for the article and being open to the responses, we all should listen and think.

    hi Ian. I totaly agree. When you are a beginner you have to practice and then it can be of use to “popy” the profs. You have to crawl before you can walk. After that you have to do it your own way. But some time it can be difficult to get an original idea where you say whow.

    Best regards from Denmark

    Greetings Ian: I must say it was a privilege to have been on site with you the first week of November as you and Juan were shooting at selected shots on the way to and at The Subway and on your first day in The Narrows. It is especially rewarding now that I get a chance to see the results of your excellent work. I’m also rewarded by having a shot or two of your efforts to immerse yourself and atttempt to swirl the leaves in the upper pool at The Subway. Your efforts were appreciated, even if not all that successful!! Thanks too for your very interesting write-ups. Unfortunately, I too can commiserate on how an expedition can get off the rails when a lens meets a with fatal impact on a rock! Improvisation becomes your best ally.

    Wally, the pleasure was all mine! I had a great time meeting you and chatting with you. Although my efforts to get the leaves swirling in the Subway ultimately failed, I hope they provided you and others with some amusement! Thanks for commenting and best wishes. – Ian

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