The Quest for Originality in Nature Photography

This January I had the great pleasure to photograph “The Wave” in the Coyote Buttes North region of the Arizona / Utah border. The Wave has become one of the most iconic photo locations in the world, creating incredible demand on a limited permit system. I think the first questions nature photographers sometimes ask themselves before considering a location are: Has it been overshot? Will there be other photographers there? Will I be able to get original compositions or will my images be too closely aligned to others? I don’t think these are necessarily the wrong questions to ask, it’s just in my personal opinion there are more important, pressing questions that must come first. Here’s my list: Do I want to photograph this location? Does it fit my style of photography? Will images produced from this area likely enhance my business (for the professional) or enhance my collection (for the pro and the amateur)?

Here are the answers I came up with when deciding to photograph the Wave. From images I’ve seen of the place, I was absolutely in awe of such a surreal landscape. It instantly become a life-lister in terms of seeing it and photographing it. My style of photography is intimate landscapes. I rarely take my Canon 70-200mm f/4L IS lens off my camera body. The Wave speaks perfectly to this style. I also have a growing Southwest collections of images which may indeed be my strongest set, and definitely my best selling. The images that sell well are not the standard beautiful sunsets, but the sites in nature which are difficult to comprehend. The Wave is exactly that kind of place.

Now let’s answer the original set of questions regarding originality. The Wave has been overshot, but it hasn’t been overshot by me. It’s my first time! The wonderful thing about nature is that it is a shared experience, and there isn’t a copyright on photographing a particular location. There will be other photographers there, but ultimately that’s not going to to sway me from photographing a location that I’m passionate about. Now, arguably the most important question on originality, quite simply, will I have the opportunity to be original? Let’s take a look at my final five images from the Wave that I chose as keepers.

Starting with my intimate portrayals of the Wave, these 3 images are going to be original for most viewers, even those that have seen many images from the Wave. Why? Because very few nature photographers work in the realm of intimate landscapes. Most photographers come to the Wave and never take off their wide-angle lens. My style is about isolating details, compressing elements, finding contrasts in light and color. I think this shows that no matter how overshot a location is, there are possibilities to be original, whether it’s in the compositions or in the conditions (quality of light, weather, etc.).

For my next image, I put on my wide-angle lens to isolate the incredible lines and colors of the Wave. If I moved the camera over 6 inches, the composition would have been completely different. If I took the image 20 minutes earlier, or 20 minutes later, the bounce light would have not been ideal. Again, I feel as though I have another original image.

For my final image, a classic composition of “The Second Wave”, originality was not in the cards. I knew the image I wanted and I knew it had been taken many, many times before me. Some of my favorite photographers have images of this composition. Then why take it? For two reasons; because it’s a beautiful scene and I want to photograph it, and because it will sell extremely well. My clients give very little regard for how much something is photographed. I actually embrace the challenge of photographing a common composition. How can I make my version stand out? And why not shoot for the stars and attempt to make the best image ever created of this location? Afterwards I love to compare my image to others and measure its strengths and weaknesses. I find it to be a great learning experience. Being “the best” is in the eye of the beholder, but in this case it is my favorite image ever taken from here, and for me that’s a great feeling.

Before I conclude this blog post I must put it out there that it’s impossible for me to have seen every image taken of the Wave. If any of my first 4 images resemble something taken in the past I would love to acknowledge those images. Please let me know! In the case of image #1 I do attribute Joe Rossbach for inspiration. His image from a few weeks back gave me a great indication of where and when the bounce light would occur.

Originality is a complex subject in nature photographer and one I will attempt to explore more in the future. This post is not in any way attempting to shed a negative light on those that photograph completely original scenes, it is truly to be admired. I simply want to convey that originality exists in iconic locations, and even when it doesn’t, that still shouldn’t dismay those who wish to share in the experience.

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28 responses to “The Quest for Originality in Nature Photography

  • David Thompson

    Justin

    Great read man. You know I’m a huge fan of intimate scenes like this, and I think it’s great to read about the photographer’s thoughts and feelings on their images. Excellent work.

    David T – D Breeze

  • ontheroad22

    Thanks David! I appreciate the comment!

  • Dave Dillahunt

    Justin,

    Great points and photos. As photographers we tend to hang out at websites that, well, have photos. Many folks feel it is unoriginal for anyone else to photography such iconic locations. Antelope Canyon is like Coyote Buttes. I was in awe of the place and regardless of how often I saw other photos of the place I had to go there and do it for myself. In addition, every single person I showed the photographs to were unaware any such place existed, so it’s all new photos to them. Sometimes I think we get caught up in our own little world of Coyote Buttes, Antelope Canyon, Badwater, etc. but need to realize that most folks have never been to or seen these iconic locations.

    • ontheroad22

      Thanks Dave! I agree with you 100 percent! In my art shows I have a large canvas of the Subway with leaves swirling in the pools below. It doesn’t get more iconic than that for photogs, but nearly every single person entering the booth has no idea where and what they’re looking at!

  • michelle

    If I were to fly through the rings of Saturn…that’s what they would look like to me. Some of the photos are like another world….

  • Eric Leslie

    I think the point you made about sale-ability is key. However, I also think many photographers have tunnel vision. Togs know more togs and are usually more versed in the work of others. So they are exposed to more great work from popular locations. In my limited in my experience, but I’ve found that non photographers, the one’s who consume our artwork don’t know the work of others as well as we do.

    I think you run into originality problems when you converge on Halfdome on the matching moment in time when Ansel shot his iconic shot. You’re simply ripping Ansel off with zero attempt to put your own fingerprint on it. Who are they fooling anyway, how can they expect the weather and the sky to be the same. Light can change a shot dramatically as you mentioned above. Great article!

  • Heather

    Amazing photos, and I firmly believe that because we are all unique individuals, our perspectives will be also 🙂

  • Frank Serafini

    Originality is very difficult at the Wave, but your attempts are very worthy. I like your images. Here are a few that were done recently and some from years ago that mimic your work
    http://serafini.zenfolio.com/coyotebuttes/h1310880e#h1310880e
    Frank

  • Sarah Fischler

    I enjoyed reading this, Justin. I think you hit a good balance between the extreme perspectives on this topic (one being that photographers should only seek out unique compositions to fulfill their personal artistic vision and those photographers who explicitly seek to make exact copies of the work of others with varying intentions).

    The images are also really beautiful. The subtle color variations in the first four really add a lot of interesting depth. The second and fourth are my favorites.

  • John from Cortez

    Hey Justin,

    “If any of my first 4 images resemble something taken in the past I would love to acknowledge those images.”

    Well, since you asked, the second image bears a close resemblance to these two:

    http://www.goodlight.us/trinity.html

    http://adamschallau.photoshelter.com/gallery-image/Latest-Releases/G0000PFydvfbziUE/I0000C6jQs0Mj.qM

    • ontheroad22

      Great catch John! I’m a huge fan of Tony Kuyper’s. I feel silly I’ve never seen that image of his! It is the first similar image I’ve seen with the light being split amongst 3 layers. He is a fantastic photographer!

  • Greg Russell

    Justin, this is a really thoughtful post and this idea of originality is something that’s been on my mind lately too.

    I think you touch on two issues here. The first is the idea of a true original image, and the second would be putting an original twist on an “icon,” whether by composition or by shooting in unique conditions, etc.

    Regarding the former issue above, I would respectfully disagree with you; I think there are few if any truly original images left to be made at The Wave, or at other heavily photographed icons (e.g. Mesa Arch in Canyonlands). These areas are so small, and they’re so heavily visited that simple statistics are against us as a photographic community. If you look at some of my images from a Wave visit in early January, you’ll see some of them simply aren’t original.

    For instance, your third image is similar to this one of mine:

    This one of mine has been done 100s of different ways:

    With the first example above, I clearly can’t accuse you or anyone of mimicking my image…how could you have? Its just a small area with few options for compositions.

    That said, the experience of visiting a place this beautiful shouldn’t be devalued, and I like the point you made there. We make images of places we feel are beautiful…ultimately, it shouldn’t matter if someone else (or 1000s of someone elses) also thought that place was beautiful.

    So, I guess what it comes down to is our motivation for making images. If it is to create truly original art, we may need to look past some of the icons. However, if we make images to satisfy ourselves, our souls (and support ourselves financially), then it could be justified.

    I hope this doesn’t come across as callous or elitist…its definitely not meant to be. Your post got me thinking, and that can be dangerous! 🙂 BTW, I LOVE that image you titled “The Racetrack.”

    Cheers,
    Greg

    • ontheroad22

      Greg,

      Thank you so much for the thoughtful comment! I was hoping someone would stir the pot a bit! While it’s hard to argue with your logic, I think there’s still a bit of room to nitpick. For example, the composition you and I shared in common – we have 2 completely different elements which make the image. Your element is snow. The snow makes the image work. My element is bounce light. Therefore I find our images to be very different indeed. Your second reference, to the “standard” wave image, is definitely noted, I’ve seen that 100s of times. But have you seen in with incredible light? Specifically I’m referring to Michael Greene’s “Carnival of Color” http://www.wildmoments.net/photo/wave1/?gallery=canyon-vistas
      It is my favorite image from the wave and of a composition we’ve seen 100s of times, but rarely with the bounce light as perfect as this. I’m making a distinction beyond composition to include variables such as weather and light. If you just measure the originality based on the composition I think the Wave is maxed out, but if you add those variables I think creating original images in the Wave is still a possibility!

      Thoughts?

  • Dietrich

    Hi Justin. I agree and I like your honesty regarding that one classical image – “because it sells”.. 😉

  • Greg Russell

    Justin, you bring up some good points, referring to the latter “issue” I mentioned in my first comment–putting a new twist on an icon by photographing it in unique conditions, lighting, weather, etc.

    Being the nerd I am, I looked up the definition of “original” this morning: “not dependent on other people’s ideas; inventive and unusual.”

    I’m still not entirely sure I’d agree that photographing the same things under different conditions would qualify them as “original.” There has to be an adjective that better describes those images–“unique?”

    I realize I’m splitting hairs at this point, arguing semantics. Ultimately, it is completely subjective what we do consider to be original in landscape photography.

    I’d like to reiterate a point I made above, that regardless of the label we put on images we make (original, unique, whatever), it absolutely doesn’t devalue the experience of being in the field, witnessing the things we get to see as photographers. To me, that’s the most important part of photography.

    Finally, I really liked the point one of the commenters above made. We live in our own little world where we’re inundated with images of these places, while many people have never seen them. So, perhaps we’re all somewhat guilty of being too tough of critics of ourselves and our work?

    I know I am.

  • Steve Sieren

    Sometimes two or more people can come up with the same idea independently. This only leaves room for confusion.

    Long lasting and non confusing originality can be obtained by creating work that can’t be duplicated.

  • wildmoments

    Justin,

    Thanks for the article and the plug. I really appreciate it. I’ve got a few ideas for that place next time I go. In the digital age along with the technology we have – it is becoming increasingly more difficult to come up with completely “original” subject matter. Lighting, weather conditions and elements, compositional choices, and post processing all play a vital role in making our work unique.

  • Bob Faw

    Justin,

    I really appreciate your view points (and your breath-taking photography). I hear similar advice in marketing. I’m a consultant in a small firm and have been told repeatedly to differentiate our firm from the big guys. That is a good thing to do, but the most important thing is to let our clients know what’s great about us, even if it’s similar.
    It’s easy, in any industry, to forget that the customer sees our work through their own, much different, perspective. They rarely see the history or breadth of the industry the way we do.

    Keep up the great blogging and photographing!

  • Mufidah Kassalias

    I love the composition, the lines and colour, the light and movement. Beautiful images!

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