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.