Avoiding the Cliché

by ajamess on 13.Aug.10

in Photographic Musings,Photos

I was reading Miguel de Icaza's blog today when I happened on what I take to be the holy grail of all web surfing: a flickr link.  Maybe it's silly, but I can spend hours perusing complete strangers' flickr streams.  Anyway, as I was clicking around, I happened on a particular photo that made me laugh and think about my photographic intentions at the same time.  Here it is:

The Leaning Tower of Tourism

Photo copyright Miguel de Icaza.

Now, I must say that I actually enjoy Trompe-l'œil, and think this is a fine example.  I also don't think there is anything wrong about taking the photo Miguel took (so please don't sue me for using your photo to make a point :)).  What such an example makes me consider is: why, as photographers, do we sometimes struggle with seeing things differently than those who have come before us?

1. You're never the first.

The world is a small place.  We see and experience what thousands have seen and experienced before, but WE are the ones left holding the bag, trying to figure out how to convey what may be a very important experience to us as individuals.   Sometimes we get somewhere, and cannot bring ourselves to "see" our subjects differently than the hordes who have come before us.  But, we just have to take that shot that everyone has taken before, as edification of our bring there, right?  Well, maybe, but I'd assert that unless you really like the shot you take, you aren't doing yourself anything by tripping the shutter.  Explore, get something someone doesn't already have.  Zoom in tight and capture the details.  Point your camera behind you and capture the child looking on in wonder.  Take a photo at 3 am with the milky way backing your subject (credit .Bala).  Anything to differentiate your photography and bring it from being merely documentation to being something which truly captures your vision.

Here's an example.  I was in the Tetons a couple summers ago and was absolutely drinking it up.  It's a fine example of a place where you feel like you can't take a bad picture, but what you end up with is a bunch of shots of the mountain range backed by blue sky.  At the time your brain says "this certainly captures this feeling of awe I have," when in fact, you are just taking the same pictures that everyone takes, only using several thousand dollars worth of camera equipment.

Afternoon in the Tetons

Canon EOS 30D 70.0-200.0 mm 114 mm 1/250 f/11.0 ISO 200
Afternoon in the TetonsMap
Illustrating the tendency to think that every shot is great in the Tetons (hint, not all are created equal).

The good shots come when you wake up early, or stay up late.


Canon EOS 30D 70.0-200.0 mm 200 mm 1/160 f/11.0 ISO 100
I was on this beach for 2 hours watching the sun set.

Morman Road Barn

Canon EOS 30D 70.0-200.0 mm 70 mm 1/80 f/8.0 ISO 100
Morman Road BarnMap
Set up in a field across the way with my 70-200. 6 shot horizontal pano.

Grand Tetons from the road.

Canon EOS 30D 70.0-200.0 mm 70 mm 1/200 f/8.0 ISO 200
Grand Tetons from the road.Map
5 shots, manually stitched, on my way back from the barn.

2. You're overwhelmed by it all.

Say you just traveled 2,000 miles to see the Rockies, or flew across the pacific to view those strange hillocks in Yangshuo, or took a boat to Antarctica to spend a month shooting penguins and ice.  The fact is, you just spent a serious amount of money and vacation time to be where you are now, and you are damn well going to come back with amazing photos!  However, when you arrive, you are so overwhelmed with the sights, sounds, and feelings of the new place that you start taking pictures left and right, hoping to capture that feeling of absolute wonder through the pure quantity of photos you've taken.

I do this all the time, and its just bad.  Somehow I think I can make up for quality with quantity.  One concrete example of this is when I recently went out to Friday Harbor with Haley and my good friend Shannon (aren't they cute?!)

Haley and Shannon

Canon EOS 7D EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM 38 mm 1/125 f/5.6 ISO 100
Haley and ShannonMap
Shannon's first stop on her cross-country tour was Seattle. It was awesome having her! Then, a week later, we got to see another friend from school…talk about good fortune :).

I took 693 photos from 7am to 5pm, spanning 2 cameras with lenses from 16 to 200mm.  I was shooting like a madman.  I get home, and guess what, I have maybe 20 photos I would consider decent, and 5-6 that I am relatively proud of.  If you're time constrained and can't schedule vacations around your photography, you absolutely must slow down, contemplate your itchy shutter finger, and take the shot when the moment is right, not when your 32 gb memory card calls out to you.


Canon EOS 7D 70-200mm 157 mm 1/640 f/8.0 ISO 200
Getting these shots were exceedingly difficult. I also took way too many just because I can shoot 8 FPS.


Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/800 f/8.0 ISO 200
One of the better from the trip.

A good way I've found to slow down is to carry a film camera in my bag.  If I find myself going nuts, I'll grab it and take some shots.  I've found that using a Mamiya 645, with its reversed image, is a great way to f with my mind just enough to help me see my subject differently.

Mike Driving

Mamiya 645
Mike DrivingMap
Mike is so ultimate.

3. You don't know what to expect.

I just finished reading duChemin's Within the Frame (excellent book).  He talks a lot about his process, especially in that if he is traveling to shoot, he spends days in advance scouting and taking notes, so that when it comes time for him to shoot, he is fully prepared.  Of course, this is not always possible when you are time constrained, but even taking a lunch-time trip to the scene you want to capture in the evening light can go a long way to limiting the feeling of dread that inevitably washes over you as you scramble to set up your tripod and gear 20 minutes before the sun goes below the horizon.

I've in this situation plenty of times, too.  As recently as 2 weeks ago when I was scrambling down Rialto beach to catch the last vestiges of the sunset near Hole in the Wall (note: buy some ND Grads).  I had maybe 15 minutes of good light to work with, and then it was gone behind a huge fog bank that had gathered 5 degrees above the horizon.  Alas.  You live, learn, and get there earlier next time.

Olympics 2010 Day 2 (62 of 63)


4. "Someone else can do it better."

There is always someone better than you.  Every photographer with a shred of humility thinks he's "not worthy."  However, sometimes in the act of shooting a photo, we get nagged by that little voice that asks us "would Adams frame it this way?  am I following the rule of thirds? WWGRD (what would Galen Rowel do?)"  Worse still is when this voice dictates when we pull the trigger.  Of course, we must be critical of our work while we create it, but not so much that we prevent ourselves from exploring our subject.  If you zoom in on that sliver of mountain because you like the outline it makes in the dusk sky, then you'd better darn well take the shot, even if the voice tells you it's no good.  What matters is your opinion on the subject, not what someone else may have done.  Make the shot your own.

Moonset over Mount Moran

Canon EOS 30D 70.0-200.0 mm 100 mm 0.6 sec f/11.0 ISO 100
Moonset over Mount MoranMap
Taken after a wonderful day spent with complete strangers.

Ladybug and rock.

Canon EOS 30D 70.0-200.0 mm 200 mm 1/200 f/5.6 ISO 100
Ladybug and rock.Map
Sometimes the details are important.

5. Performance anxiety.

We've all been there.  You have a minute to capture the god-beams streaming through the clouds.  What is your composition going to be like?  What settings are you going to use?  Do you have your ND Grad aligned correctly?  Is the shot going to be sharp enough?  Am I using the right ISO?  What about that guy shooting next to me, what is he doing?  Oh look, the light's gone. 

I don't know how many shots I've missed by a fraction of a second for all the same reasons.  Really good people make this process automatic.  I'm not there yet, but I know how to get there: practice.  Bring your camera to lunch and catch your friend's fleeting expressions.  Explore the way the light falls on the one flower in the parking lot at work.  Take pictures of your cat in new and interesting ways.

Dry Tounge Make Kitty Sad

Canon EOS 7D EF100mm f/2 USM 100 mm 1/200 f/2.8 ISO 800
Dry Tounge Make Kitty SadMap
I couldn't stop laughing when I saw this…

If you can make the mundane your strength and make all the technical concerns insignificant, just imagine what you can do when a truly glorious vista is unfolded before you.


Canon EOS 7D EF24-70mm f/2.8L USM 68 mm 1/250 sec f/8.0 ISO 200
The cascades during sunset. 10 shot pano, handheld.

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