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Don’t Trip #2 – Following the Herd Hurts

When I started this journey toward mastering photography, I spent many hours dreaming, researching, and (unfortunately) complaining. I spent those formative years combing through National Geographic and other photography publications, staring longingly at images of people, places, and compositions that are now iconic. I dreamed one day of photographing those same iconic places, hoping to experience the same success as other photographers.

When I began capturing my own images in earnest, Instagram and YouTube were taking off as an outlet for publishing photography. Naturally, I began searching through images, newsfeeds, and websites for inspiration, advice, and shooting locations. This, at first, was helpful and transformational for my photography. If anything, it brought photography down from its lofty tower, into the mainstream, as a form of expression that anyone could do. Even unknown photographers could experience some measure of success, simply from the exposure and support inherent in this growing online community.

It was not long, however, before this dreaming and researching took a more sinister turn, devolving into comparing and complaining. Instead of being inspired by the compositions and icon shots of other photographers, I began to compare myself to them. Why were their images so superior and mine so lackluster? How were they achieving such notoriety while I struggled to get “likes and shares” outside of my circle of family and friends (Thanks, mom!)? Of course, these questions are necessary for development as a photographer, and can push you toward growth and change. But, for me, the opposite happened. Soon I found myself complaining and blaming other photographers for my apparent lack of success.

“If only I could shoot iconic locations, my images would improve,” I thought. “If I had thought of that composition first, I would be reaping the notoriety,” I said. “They are only successful because they have money to monetize or boost their image posts on social media,” I reasoned.

None of this was healthy! It killed my creativity, caused significant self-doubt, and shutdown my desire to learn and grow in the craft of photography. This brings me to the point of this article. You will find success in photography by learning from other photographers and iconic compositions, not by blindly following or complaining about the herd.

Let me give two examples. First, emerging and aspiring photographers often assume that capturing iconic locations is the key to succeeding as a photographer. I will never forget visiting Yosemite National Park in the United States, an iconic place captured thousands of times by photographers and made famous as the subject of desktop backgrounds and marketing materials for Macintosh operating systems. I took dozens of images at Yosemite. Because Yosemite is so majestic, I was convinced my images of El Capitan would be outstanding.  Hardly. It was a hot day, with harsh light, and heavy atmospheric haze from neighboring forest fires. I did not publish one photo from that trip.

Re-capturing iconic locations and compositions does not guarantee success. In fact, it can border on cliché. While capturing images of iconic locations can bring immense personal satisfaction, marketing those images can be difficult in an industry saturated with thousands of images (even stock images) of just one iconic subject (like El Capitan). Instead of following the herd, look for different and untried perspectives and compositions. Search for unique ways to capture a location. One of my images, now a personal favorite, was captured while attempting to photograph the iconic. I wanted an image of an old, southern courthouse located in city square in Southern Tennessee, USA. It would have been a quintessential image of the Old South, but the lighting and sky were terrible. Instead, while searching for a good perspective of the courthouse, I stumbled upon a window in an old building that caught my eye. Here is the image:

I could not escape the contrasting colors, lines, and shapes created by such an ordinary thing as a cracked, circular window in a mundane brick wall. To me, the image is magical. I am proud of this image too, much more so than any of my attempts at capturing iconic locations.

Lastly, emerging and aspiring photographers often think that they will find success by imitating other photographers or following photography trends. This is a surprisingly attractive shortcut (so-called) to success and is the most obvious when following photography vlogs on YouTube. A photographer uploads a vlog about his or her experience capturing images of sand dunes in Namibia. Then, before you know it, the next few weeks are filled with uploads of other photographers doing the same. So follows Scotland, the Lake District, astrophotography in Utah, and the worst offender, the white walls and blue domes of Santorini, Greece.

Now, I understand there are reasons for this apparent lack of diversity, creativity, and borderline plagiarism in the online photographic community. Photography is seasonal (like heather in the UK), and the peak window of time to visit and photograph some locations can be very narrow. Also, social media algorithms and the marketing metrics that drive them focus on trends, so of course this lends itself to redundancy in suggested content. In addition, some photographers lead photo workshops together, which they vlog about and upload at similar times. These realities skew perception. However, can we admit that the online photography community does not exist in a vacuum and that the temptation to imitate others or mindlessly follow trends is very real. My advice? Try to avoid the temptation to imitate, unless your aim is mass production or mass appeal, even if it means sacrificing exposure or audience reach.

Would I like notoriety as a photographer? Yes. Do I want to make some income for the images I produce, and the blog posts I write? Sure. But for me, I would rather achieve this notoriety and income through originality, artistic integrity, and engaging a more “niche” or focused audience. Will these goals change over time? Probably. Until then, these are values that I choose to embrace. How about you?

Leave your comments below. Let’s start a conversation. Have you tripped over the temptation to follow the herd?

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