Chasing the Icon; a Checklist for Failure?

This article was originally published in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine several years ago. Be sure to subscribe to see the latest work from great photographers across Canada.

Chasing the Icon

Photographers are like birders. For a lot of birders, what matters most is the sighting of a species so you can check off that bird from your list. The more species sighted the better. The same is true for many photographers; the number of iconic locations captured adds notches to your photography belt. Taj Mahal? Got it! Delicate Arch? Nabbed! Niagara Falls? You bet! But does a portfolio full of the grand wonders of the World make you a better photographer? I doubt it.

©Darwin Wiggett - Niagara Falls

©Darwin Wiggett – The daily rainbow at Niagara Falls

The internet has made finding, knowing and sharing information about photo locations very easy. Do a little research, look at a few photos online and you’ll know exactly where and when to go get the best sighting. And once you get to an icon you’ll line up with hundreds of other photographers all trying to make the same shot. What’s the point?

©Darwin Wiggett - At most icons dozens of photographers line up every sunrise to make the same image.

©Darwin Wiggett – At most icons dozens of photographers line up every sunrise to make the same image. Even lesser known spots are now attracting photographers who search farther and wider to get another icon checked off their life list.

In the past, the portfolios of photographers were full of work from lesser known local areas, and the images showed more creative vision because people were shooting for themselves and not trying to copy someone else’s iconic image. In short, there was a personal stamp on each photographer’s work because they were reacting to the scene personally.

©Samantha Chrysanthou

©Samantha Chrysanthou

Fast forward to the app-driven ‘iPhotography’ world of today and everything looks the same. In the portfolios I review, I see all the same trophy locations, with similar compositions, all processed with the same software plug-ins. The results are homogenous and boring. What has happened to personal expression?

©Darwin Wiggett - Ho Hum, not another Moraine Lake photo at sunrise.

©Darwin Wiggett – Ho Hum, not another Moraine Lake photo at sunrise.

I think what’s happened is that we’ve lost touch with why we go out to make photos in the first place. For most of us who do nature photography, we go out because we want to connect with nature. The more we actually take the time, look around and be in nature, the better our photography will be. A National Geographic photographer once said that the way to get good enough to work for the magazine was to choose one subject or location, preferably close to home, that you can revisit over and over again and really get to know well. The better you know the subject or location, the deeper you’ll dig to create unique images with your personal stamp. And the more your personal style emerges, the more likely you’ll be sought after by the magazine.

©Darwin Wiggett - Great photography should not be location dependent but should be photographer dependent.

©Darwin Wiggett – Great photography should not be location dependent but should be photographer dependent.

For me, I’ve found that when I travel if I just visit one or two spots and concentrate on getting to know those locations, then my photography soars. If I chase icons and try to capture as many locations as possible, then my photography and the experience of the trip is unremarkable. So, just like the birder who specializes in one or two species and has a depth of knowledge and personal experience with those species, so too will the photographer who moves beyond the icon checklist encourage a deeper engagement and portrayal of their subjects.

©Darwin Wiggett - Just like the Raven in its territory, get to know one or two areas really well and you'll find the juiciest morsels to sink your dip your beak into for Creative sustenance.

©Darwin Wiggett – Just like the raven in its territory, get to know one or two areas really well and you’ll find the juiciest morsels to sink  your beak into for creative sustenance.

This week we are hosting our Beyond the Icon: Intimate Landscapes of the Canadian Rockies photography workshop where we’ll help our participants bring out their creative vision. I am sure we’ll be blown away by the images made during this workshop as each photographer digs into their well of personal seeing. If you have time this November and you are interested in an intensive creative learning experience we do have a couple of spots left in our Fire and Ice in the Canadian Rockies workshop where we’ll visit the edges of fall and winter in a time when few photographers visit the Rockies. Nothing inspires creativity more than having to look beyond the obvious and November always pushes us to see deeper.

©Darwin Wiggett - The transition from fall to winter is a spark that fuels creative expression.

©Darwin Wiggett – The transition from fall to winter is a spark that fuels creative expression.

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

11 Comments

  1. Henrik
    October 20, 2014

    Hi Darwin,
    your thoughts resonate with mine … Even if I may not be granted such nice landscape as you in Canada, I’ll try wringing off some personal photographic views from my regular walks … it’s not at all boring.
    Within half an hour’s foot walk I have partly old buildings, partly some fields within the reach of my gear. Here’s some examples, I’ve even spent a category for this type of shots: http://www.mopswerk.de/category/blog/m-o-ps/regular-walk/
    From today’s post, I like your detail shots!
    Best, Henrik

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      October 21, 2014

      Love the images you are finding on your walk, you prove that amazing work can be made anywhere a person lives.

  2. Florian
    October 20, 2014

    Hello,
    I am also convinced that good photography is not to be found in iconic subjects and locations, but, as you describe, in a close, personal examination of a subject or location. Also, I expect that as a photographer “grows”, she becomes less and less satisfied with iconic shots/locations and starts to develop a unique and personal style. However, maybe just for the argument’s sake, I would also like to take another point of view.
    I guess that many photographers started out with photography in order to capture subjects and locations they consider beautiful and to create pictures they like to look at. The fact that I have taken a photograph myself may be more important than whether or not it has been taken one or even a million times before. The answer to your question “What’s the point?” may be “to photograph (and also see and experience) the iconic location myself”. In my opinion, the “problem” may rather be that so many people photograph and travel nowadays and that such humongous numbers of shots are shared online. For the viewer this can indeed become very boring or even discouraging.

    Reply
  3. Craig Taylor
    October 20, 2014

    I totally agree but I also acknowledge that I go for the “iconic shot” like everyone else. However, once I get “that” shot out of the way? Then I try to look for the less obvious shot. I took this shot at Moraine Lake during sunrise with a dozen photographers snapping away behind me. No one else got this shot though. I was on the same rock pile as everyone else but I turned around:

    https://www.flickr.com/photos/crtaylor/6193729671/

    Reply
    • Darwin Wiggett
      October 21, 2014

      Hi Craig,

      I often do the same, I do the big glory shot to get it out of the way and then I can concentrate on actual ‘deeper seeing’. Often we do get tunnel vision just trying to get the trophy and fail to actually look around us like you did at Moraine Lake.

  4. Chasing the Icon; a Checklist for Failure? — Orenco Photography Club
    October 21, 2014

    […] Photographers are like birders. For a lot of birders, what matters most is the sighting of a species so you can check off that bird from your list. The more species sighted the better. The same is true for many photographers; the number of iconic locations captured adds notches to your photography belt. Taj Mahal? Got it! Delicate Arch? Nabbed! Niagara Falls? You bet! But does a portfolio full of the grand wonders of the World make you a better photographer? I doubt it. MORE… […]

    Reply
  5. Josh Cripps
    October 21, 2014

    Great article, Darwin. I am often tempted to pull all the iconic shots from my website so that the body of work is wholly unique. But I don’t, because most of my icons were shot during my learning phase, when it was effective to knock one variable (an awesome location) out of the equation. So those shots for me represent my past to some extent, and where I’ve come from. But looking forward, I have to agree that the idea of actively seeking out an iconic location to photography it gives me a case of the yawns.

    Anyway, all I really wanted to say was that I really dig that last shot in this post!

    Josh

    Reply
  6. Jamie Caskenette
    October 23, 2014

    Hey Darwin, great article and definitely something to consider as photographers. I feel the same in that spending the time to really learn the nuts and bolts of a certain location or landscape helps us grow in a creative way. Considering I don’t like crowded places to start with, I avoid the tourist trap/trophy locations at all costs! I’ve lost count of how many times I have driven past the classic dramatic Vermillion Lakes sunrise on my way to some lesser known, but preferred, location on the Icefields Parkway that I get all to myself..

    Funny, I have been thinking about this lately and nice to see you touch on it!! Nice work

    Jamie

    Reply
  7. Jürgen Weginger
    October 27, 2014

    Next Year I will travel to Canada for 3 weeks and I will also Look for the Great icons. But I will always look for new places and point of views. I try to keep my portfolio unique. And yes, today there are a lot of trophy hunting

    Reply
  8. KP
    August 13, 2016

    Hello Darwin, I purchased the How to Photograph Canadian Rockies and it is really great collection. One thing I could not find (I may have missed it) is which lenses and filters and other photography accessories one should carry for Canadian Rockies photograph, especially lenses and filters. Can you please comment?

    Reply
    • Samantha Chrysanthou
      August 18, 2016

      Hi KP,

      The short answer is…carry what you have! We can’t advise you on what gear to bring because the gear you need is going to depend on your vision. Do you enjoy shooting grand landscapes? Then you’ll need wide angle lenses. Or perhaps intimate details and extractive work is more your love in which case telephoto lenses or macro lenses will be better. Do you like capturing foreground and sky in the same image? Then a split graduated filter will help – unless you want to post process your vision later in a software tool like Photoshop.

      Our advice? Worry less about the gear, use what you have or what is easily available to you and spend more time in the moment when you visit. Shoot what you find exciting. Shoot more. Over time, you’ll be able to answer the Great Gear Question on your own.

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