I originally wrote this piece as a caption on of one of my Instagram photographs, on this image of sunrise at Canyonlands National Park. It ended up being one of my most commented on images, and it resonated with a lot people. I realized I needed to write up a blog post on that same subject so I can expand upon why you should still take a photograph that someone else might consider a cliché. It’s something I feel strongly about, and I wanted to make sure this idea could reach as many people as possible, so that no one is ever made to feel lesser just because they took a photograph of a popular spot from its main vantage point.
We All Have to Start Somewhere
When I began my landscape photography journey – because before that, I dabbled in portrait, wildlife, and macro photography before falling completely in love with landscapes – I definitely took a LOT of cliché, obvious shots. It’s hard not to – you arrive at a beautiful destination and your first instinct is to snap the vista before you exactly how you see it. This point-and-shoot style is where we all begin. Maybe Ansel Adams woke up with perfect visions of the national parks, but for us mere mortals, we all have to start somewhere.
Cliché Shots Teach You to Become a Better Photographer
In the pursuit of becoming a better photographer, you have to practice and take as many photographs as you can to improve. When you see a beautiful shot of a popular place, attempting to take that same photograph is actually a wonderful learning experience. I’m not saying to go out and forever copy shots that inspire you – but maybe you’ve only shot waterfalls a certain way, and this one particular shot has that beautiful silky flow, and so to take the same shot you have to teach yourself how to play with long exposures. Maybe you’ve never been able to get a perfect sunburst, or your sunrise/sunset shots are too blown out. How do you fix these issues to make your photograph look like the classic shot? It is only once you’ve mastered the technical details to get the classic shot, that you then can reach the next stage of becoming a better photographer – how do I get a unique shot of a popular place? How do I put my own unique spin on it? Is it through angles? Editing?
Maybe There is no Unique Shot
But let’s say you reach a beautiful destination and it really only has one or two main angles, or you can’t get a unique shot because it would mean going off trail, or maybe a different shot is too dangerous to capture. In the case of this particular arch in Canyonlands, it looks so enormous in photographs, but it really only fits about five to seven photographers, tripods spread. You line up and you get one, maybe two or three shots through the arch, but that is the extent of the angles you can think of. This doesn’t mean you’re not a good enough photographer, and it doesn’t mean you can’t still take pride in the shot you took, even if it’s the exact same shot as the photographer standing next to you.
No Photo Ever Compares to the Experience
I knew I would struggle to get a “unique” shot at this arch, but I wanted to photograph it anyway. This place gets crazy packed with other photographers and tourists, all taking the same shot – but there is a reason this place is crowded. There is a reason so many people like me want to photograph this arch – it is out of this world gorgeous to watch the day begin between the rocks. I’m sure you’ve seen another shot like mine, but there’s no photograph that can describe the way it felt to be standing there, watching the sun rise above the distant mountains. I saw so many photographs from this arch before I ever saw it, but experiencing it in person blew them all away. The shot I took is special not for its uniqueness or creativity or even technicality, but because it represents such an incredible memory for me.
Cliché Spots are Popular for a Reason
This arch and other well-known places are popular for a reason, so why should that stop you from getting your own shot? It’s a wonderful feeling to look at a shot and take pride that you created that, even if it is an echo of other shots before it – it’s still YOUR shot, and you still have room to put your creative spin on it, especially in these days with such powerful editing tools at our disposal. But there are still plenty of photographers who will look at your shot and say things like “ugh that shot is so overdone” or “great another shot of ____ (insert place name)”. Ironically, I find that when people try to make you feel lesser for taking a “cliché” shot, they usually have taken the same shot they are complaining about (!). But because they took it “back before it was cool” or before Instagram or whatever, they think it gives them the exclusive right to it or something, and thus invalidates your shot. This kind of superiority has no place in landscape photography, because – circling back to the first point I made – we all start somewhere!
Take Shots That Will Make You Happy, Forget the Rest
So get out there, take some cliché shots and learn how to master them. And then, if you can, push your creativity and try to get a (more) unique shot – because this next stage is where you will come into your own in your photography. But at the end of the day, I really just want you to take shots that will make you happy, cliché or not. Experience the beauty of these amazing popular places for yourself. Maybe today is the day you make the shot your own – through angles, composition, edits, or other means – but even if your shot is the same postcard image you’ve seen so many times before, you’ll have still learned so much. But more importantly, you will have created a beautiful memory that is all your own. Shoot those clichés to learn, expand your creativity when you can, and don’t let the haters under your skin.